NBA prospect Isaiah Stewart: ‘I’m the biggest sleeper in the draft’

Washington Huskies big man Isaiah Stewart came into his freshman season projected as the No. 8 overall pick in our aggregate mock draft. While he has since fallen to the back end of the first round, he feels confident that analysts are making a huge mistake not having him higher.

Not lacking in confidence, the 19-year-old big man told HoopsHype that in a normal pre-draft process, he feels he would have been a standout player outperforming others in group workout settings.

Please note that this interview transcription was very minorly edited for clarity. 

What have the last few months looked like you? What have you been doing to keep busy?

Isaiah Stewart: Everything is going well. I can’t really complain. I’m happy things are getting started back up with the combine and heading into the draft. It has been a long process but what I took away from it is that it gave me more time to work on my game. I’ve been working out every single day. It’s very competitive. I fell in love with this process, waking up early morning and working out at 8 am with Scott Fitch, who is also from Rochester in New York. He coaches with Team USA and at the Nike Hoop Summit. We looked back at the college season and found things we needed to work on.

What are some of the ways you have improved the most this offseason?

IS: I’m a guy that likes to work on every single part of my game. I could probably list a hundred things I’ve been doing. But the main thing has definitely been my shooting. I have come a long way but I’m definitely shooting at a good clip right now. I’m just getting better at it every single day. We have also been working on passing, working on my IQ and being able to play in the short roll. I watch a guy like Bam Adebayo who makes a lot of great passes in the short roll. He has a great IQ. I see how he is able to impact the game in that way. He is patient and he can read the defense and he doesn’t get sped up. The past college season, I was double-teamed and triple-teamed a lot. I needed to learn how to make better reads out of the high post.

On the topic of shooting, you averaged 0.6 attempts per game from three-point range during your time in college. Where would you want that to be in the pros?

IS: I think that is something I wasn’t really able to showcase in college. I’m not the type of guy to pull up from deep just to pull up from deep. But being able to shoot the ball is something I’ve always had in my game. That is something I’ll be able to show at the next level. Coming into next season, people aren’t going to expect me to be able to shoot it. They’re going to play off me and I’m going to make them pay for it.

After a disappointing season for Washington, what are some things you want to improve your reputation and bring it back to the elite big man we saw coming out of high school?

IS: People forgot who I am. I’m not sure if it’s because we had a losing season or not. But these guys that they have in the draft over me are guys I’ve been beating my whole life. I won every matchup. You talk about guys that are sleepers in this draft and I’m the biggest sleeper. I’m the guy that’s slept on the most. I’m a guy who has always been showing up, taking care of business from day one. Every level I’ve played, there was always doubt. But people smart enough know not to bet against Isaiah Stewart. People didn’t want me to be a ranked guy. But they knew they had no choice because every matchup that I’ve played against, I dominated. My game isn’t sexy. It’s not attractive. But at the end of the day, it gets the job done. People like flashy and people like potential but potential means you haven’t done anything. At the end of the day, I know I’m a winner. This past season was a losing season but people who know Isaiah Stewart know I’m going to be successful at the NBA level. They know the guys that are ahead of me, I’m better than them.

When you see mock drafts and big boards and you are lower than you think you should be, what are some ways you use it motivation?

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

IS: I mentally note it. I keep track of it. I use that as fuel to the fire. I had to force my way up rankings in the past. I had to make it so there was no choice because I’m someone who if you put your best guy against me, I’m going to beat them every single time. It’s going to continue to fuel me. But it’s also not something I’m going to lose sleep about. Because at the end of the day, we all have to play on the court. When the ball gets tipped off, I can’t wait for that day to come back so I’m able to prove these doubters wrong. They must have forgot who busted their favorite player ass every time, why people duck me and why people don’t like to play against Isaiah Stewart. If we were able to have group workouts with teams, a lot of these big men would not play against me. I look forward to getting back to basketball so I can just prove some people wrong and show people I’m the biggest sleeper in this draft. After a few years, people are going to look back at this draft and see that.

Can you elaborate on how you think you would have performed in a group workout environment?

IS: Team workouts would have exposed a lot of people. It would have shown NBA general managers that people at my position do not like to go up against me. They are afraid their stock will go down. Because at the end of the day, point blank, they know I’m the better player. Agents would have been pulling their players against me, not letting them compete against me. That is something that did not get to happen this pre-draft process because of the unfortunate circumstances of COVID-19.

Your defense has always been an elite trait of yours. You averaged more than two blocks per game as a freshman, recording the third-most blocks among all players in the Pac-12.

IS: Defense is something that I take pride in and a lot of people knocked that because we played a 2-3 zone this past season. But my whole life, I’ve played man-to-man. Pretty much every matchup, every top player from Team USA and at All-Star games was man-to-man. In terms of my shot-blocking, I feel like that is not something people really talk about because they label me as an undersized center and they do not know if they can see that translating at the next level. But it is definitely something I see translating because I have great instincts protecting the rim, impacting the shot, using my body, those types of things.

You talked about being an “undersized” big man but your wingspan is massive. Your standing reach is through the roof as well. How are you able to use that to play bigger than your height?

IS: You take a 7-footer and his standing reach might be 9-foot. My standing reach is 9-foot-2 and my wingspan is 7-foot-4. People overlook that. Length matters. I’m a lot bigger than people portray me to be. Not only my length but also my heart, which helps me make up for that as well. Motor, too. I’ll be able to play the five and the four at the next level.

Nearly half of your offensive finishes last season were post-up opportunities. That is going to go down a ton in the NBA. But what do you think you will replace those possessions with?

IS: I think it will be the pick-and-roll. When I am in the scenario and teams see that I can shoot the ball, I feel like they will put me in certain spots to do that because that will help the team. I know that post-ups are not a big thing in the NBA. But I feel like that should also be intriguing to certain teams because they have not seen me much in a short roll scenario yet. It’s just potential I haven’t tapped into and it’s just something I can’t wait to show.

How much do you think your output is going to improve when playing with elite NBA ballhandlers?

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports // Data via Synergy Sports Tech

IS: You can go back and watch film and see all of the crazy and challenging passes that I caught on fast break opportunities. I was double-teamed and triple-teamed in college and was still able to catch the pass. When I am playing with a more skilled point guard, it is going to be even easier for me. I didn’t really have an easy basket in college basketball. I was at attention against every team I played against. Even these players that are ranked above me had to double-team me every time I played against them.

Your usage rate might go down a bit at the beginning of your career. How will you be able to continue to impact the game without the ball in your hands? 

IS: I’m going to be able to set players up. One thing I looked at in film that I really have been focusing on during this process and have taken pride in is setting great screens and get my other teammates open. I also plan to draw attention, rebounding, being on the boards, second-chance points. I get my nose dirty. I feel like I’m impactful that don’t involve me scoring just by being on the floor with my energy.

Is there a type of offensive system that you think might be best for your style of play?

IS: I’ve played all types of basketball. This year, to me, our pace was pretty slow. It was half-court possessions. But the year before that in high school was always up and down, fast, always trying to get fast breaks started. I can fit in with either slow or up and down.

When looking at all high-major freshmen, you ranked as one of the most prolific finishers within five feet of the basket. How will that translate?

IS: I was doubled every game so I was not as able to show my athleticism. People view me as a person that is a below the rim player. But I had no leakouts. I had no easy baskets. I didn’t get a chance to show that I can play above the rim. I’m very athletic. Honestly, I feel like there are not a lot of players like me in the NBA. I’m physical. I love getting my nose in the dirt. I don’t have a problem with throwing my body around. I can finesse players. The refs are forced to look at something, which gets me to the free-throw line as well and that helps the team out.   

How would you compare your competitiveness to other players who you have faced?

IS: I just want it more. I want it more than any of these other guys I have ever played against. It shows. I always showed up. Every time I was on the court, I knew these guys did not want to play against me and I sensed that every time. They knew I was going to outwork them. They knew I was not going to get tired and they knew they had to keep up with me the whole game. They know that I am going to be a pain in the ass the whole game. They don’t like that. I just want it more. I’m a dog.

What are your goals for next season, which will be your first in the NBA? What about during your career?

IS: I want to be the most impactful player from this draft to come in right away and impact their team. The team is able to use me right away. I’m not a project. I’m not a guy that is going to get drafted and you have to wait five years to see results. I’m going to be able to make a difference right away. But long-term, I love to win. Watching the NBA Finals made me really want one of those under my belt. I want to look back on my career and know that I had a dominant career and I proved the doubters wrong.

What are some of your interests outside of basketball? What do you like to do off the court?

IS: I’m into real estate. I’m into clothes and I’m into fashion. I have a lot of favorite brands but I’m also a guy where if it looks good, I will wear it even if it is not a known brand. It can be a local brand. I have all kinds of brands that people have never even heard of in my closet.

Can you elaborate on your interest in real estate? I don’t hear that from many other people who are 19 years old. 

IS: Real estate is a good investment. It is a smart investment if you do your research and if you know what you are getting into. It brings another source of income and it is something I have always been interested in since I was a kid, being around my dad. My family always spoke about it.

Considering you are from New York, I imagine it must feel pretty cool to be repped by Jay Z’s Roc Nation.  

IS: It was a pretty easy decision for me. I saw how hard my agent, Drew Gross, worked. His work ethic made it a no-brainer. My dad loved it as well. Jay Z’s nephew Nahziah Carter is from Rochester and went to Washington, just like me.


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