Washington basketball’s Isaiah Stewart has proven to be one of the nation’s top freshmen, but where does he fit in the 2020 draft picture?
So far this year, Isaiah Stewart has done exactly what was expected of Washington basketball’s top prospect, who was ranked as the No. 2 center and third overall prospect coming out of high school.
He’s been nothing short of a centerpiece for the Huskies so far — his consistency has been the primary steadying force for Mike Hopkins’ team amidst the turbulence of the past month and a half. With the assumption that he is leaving for the NBA Draft after this year, there is enough of a sample size to make some observations about where he fits in the picture with other power forwards and centers who will also likely be entering their names after the season.
Averaging 18.3 points and 9 rebounds per game, Stewart’s been progressively more important for the Huskies game by game. He hasn’t turned in any bad performances statistically either (save for that 4-point, 25% FG shooting effort in the Stanford loss), and he’s also currently leading the PAC-12 in 2-point field goals and rebounds. To that end, it’s difficult to justify pinning any of the Dawgs’ tough losses on Stewart when he regularly does well in big matchups.
He’s also shown a commitment to improving the weaker areas of his game — particularly free throw shooting and shooting with his left — and it’s paid off so far. His free throw percentage is up to a respectable 75.8% and he’s shown more willingness to attack with his off-hand. His post arsenal has expanded as has his confidence around the rim. Although its been rarely utilized for UW, his perimeter shooting form is potentially one of those areas of improvement too.
These are all great things for both UW and Stewart’s draft stock. With Quade Green out for at least the rest of the regular season, his usage rate has climbed and it’s apparent that he’ll be depended on even more as a focal point on both ends of the court.
Considering what we saw from Markelle Fultz in a year where UW finished in the cellar of the conference and he still went No. 1, it doesn’t make sense on any level to associate the Huskies’ inconsistencies with Stewart’s draft stock, especially when there’s still hope for the postseason. It’s more of an issue of high-ceiling big men being one of the few deep areas of this year’s draft.
And regardless of doing practically everything that is expected of him, Stewart is still often slated below other big men like Obi Toppin and Onyeka Okongwu, two power forwards who have burst onto the scene this year, and James Wiseman, who’s been the consensus number one center all season. Whether Stewart will play the 4 or 5 in the league will depend on the situation he’s drafted into, but based on what we’ve seen from him physically he’s certainly capable at both despite any concern about his height.
There’s not much physical distinction between the top tier of big men in the draft (save for Wiseman’s outstanding measurements). Nor is there much difference in the way of stats. Subtler distinctions are what separate these three.
As for PFs, Okongwu and Toppin have displayed a bit more of a varied offensive arsenal. Okongwu’s package of moves down low brings more options than Stewart’s, while Toppin is just as comfortable roaming the perimeter as the paint. Same with Wiseman, whose jumper is closer to being NBA-ready and has the body to battle with the majority of NBA 5’s.
Toppin is looking like the best player in college basketball right now, and Dayton’s surge to the top 10 hinges heavily on his services. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Flyers’ nation-leading offensive efficiency is primarily Toppin’s work. Even though his shooting splits are down from last year, he’s been filling out the stat sheet (more points, rebounds, blocks, assists, and steals per game) against a much tougher schedule.
Despite being significantly older than most other lottery prospects at 21 — not exactly ideal when drafting for the future — he has a three-point shot that is tailored for the league. He stays compact and has shown the ability to shoot from a variety of positions and spots around the perimeter:
Going head to head, Stewart looked more polished and complete than Okongwu, finishing with 18 to Okongwu’s 10 — with most of his scores in the low post against Okongwu. UW won that game 72-40. This game likely should’ve meant more to some scouts than it did. The intangibles Stewart displayed in this matchup are probably not being noticed enough, but such is the way of the Draft at times.
But right now, the rawer elements of the USC center’s game are what draftniks long after the most.
Stewart is incredibly athletically gifted, but Okongwu is even more so. The same height and weight with a bit more leaping ability and mobility — even more impressive considering that Stewart is no slouch in either area — makes Okongwu a bit more appealing in terms of upside.
7’1 with a ridiculous wingspan and an intensity in the post unmatched in college this season, Wiseman is a force in the post and everything that scouts and fans expected him to be. He did absurd things like this multiple times per game for Memphis, even against bigger defenders who he shouldn’t be able to do that to.
Wiseman’s draft stock has been frozen since November because we haven’t seen him play since he left Memphis, but NBA GMs have seen him enough now that it probably wouldn’t change much about his status if he continued to play. Months spent preparing for the draft instead of playing in college definitely won’t hurt either.
Overall, it’s less about what Stewart isn’t doing than what other players have shown they are capable of. It’s difficult to foresee him rising up in mock drafts (barring injury or some other unforeseen circumstance) because most of what sets Toppin, Okongwu, Wiseman, etc. apart are traits that he will not be able to display within UW’s schemes or just natural parts of his athletic tools that are unlikely to change.
But what I will say is this: Stewart’s maturity and confidence continue to grow, even when the Huskies struggle. He’s shown a willingness to take on big-time matchups and dominate them, and it’s apparent that he understands where he needs to improve to make it in the NBA. Despite all that was said before, counting him out is ill-advised.