Isaiah Stewart smiled.
He smiled as he sat in an interview room inside Alaska Airlines Arena on media day, his 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame folded onto a purple stool. He smiled as he answered questions from reporters, smiled as he told them about how much he’s enjoying his Swahili class. He likes to try out phrases, spouting off answers even when he’s wrong.
Later, he smiled through the start of Washington’s practice as he traded jokes with assistant coach Cameron Dollar. This Stewart, the one with that infectious grin, is one that City Rocks program director Jim Hart knows well. City Rocks was Stewart’s Elite Youth Basketball League team in New York, and Hart coached him directly for three years.
UW fans are already familiar with Stewart. The five-star forward is the gem of the Huskies’ 2019 class and is considered the No. 3 player in the country by 247Sports composite. His arrival on campus has been highly anticipated since he joined the Huskies’ top-10 recruiting class in January.
But Hart, who met Stewart when he was 14, knows something that won’t appear on any scouting report. And it doesn’t have much to do with basketball.
“Just how fun, how silly he is, how much he loves to laugh,” Hart said during a phone conversation last week. “If you get him on a van ride or at a hotel and the kids start joking, he’ll put himself dead center. He really loves to laugh.”
That much was apparent during Stewart’s first interactions with local media, and he kept the reporters chuckling along with him. Earlier that afternoon, junior Hameir Wright, who is from Albany, New York, and also played for City Rocks, used familiar words to describe his long-time friend: Passionate. Fun. A leader. Somebody who just loves to win.
“He’s demanding,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t say demanding in a bad way, but he’s passionate about winning. If he’s messing up, he ain’t got no problem calling you out.”
That side of Stewart also appeared during the first half-hour of practice on that Tuesday afternoon. When a teammate challenged him in the post, he turned on him with a hard glare that even had reporters sitting behind the basket jumping back. Every time the Huskies transitioned from one end of the court to the other, Stewart was the first player to move, gesturing to those behind him to hurry.
After Stewart transferred from McQuaid Jesuit High School in Rochester, New York, to La Lumiere in Indiana for his final two seasons of high school eligibility, he couldn’t make it back to New York for every City Rocks practice. Hart always noticed when he was missing. There was a Stewart-shaped hole in every room.
“If you were the last guy on the team, he picked that guy up,” Hart said. “In the layup line, no one could just jog through dispassionately. He almost wouldn’t allow it. Not through vocal force but just through example. He just set such a good example. … He’s just a pleasure to be around. You just knew the first year he wasn’t there, ‘Wow, this is different without Isaiah. It’s like the post-Isaiah era.”
‘Certain guys are just leaders’
The Stewart era at UW won’t last long.
Right now, NBADraft.net projects Stewart will be the No. 3 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. But there’s little doubt that his presence, even for just a single year, will leave a lasting impact. A 2019 McDonald’s All-American and the Naismith High School National Player of the Year, Stewart was named to the preseason All-Pac-12 first team without ever playing a game. Many analysts are predicting he’ll be the top freshman in the country.
“That guy is just, he’s a monster,” Rivals national basketball analyst Eric Bossi said over the summer. “The motor never, never stops running. He’s relentless and physical. He has great hands. He can score with either hand around the basket. He plays much bigger than his size because of his strength and long arms. He’s a little bit more explosive athletically than I think people realize and he’s done a lot to expand his game from being just a pure power player in the post.”
But what UW needs from Stewart goes beyond basketball. The Huskies lost four starters from last year’s team that won the Pac-12 regular-season championship and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaylen Nowell is gone. So is Pac-12 and Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Matisse Thybulle. And so is point guard David Crisp, the team’s unquestioned leader.
Every time UW pulled out a close game in 2018-19, the underclassmen pointed to Nowell and the seniors — Thybulle, Crisp, Noah Dickerson and Dominic Green — as the stabilizing force. This season, the Huskies will have to turn to someone else.
Junior and leading returning scorer Nahziah Carter appears primed to slide into that role. And while it would be unusual for a first-year player to join him, everything about Stewart suggests he’s built to do just that.
“I just feel like it’s something that’s just in me,” Stewart said. “I’m OK with leading. I’m OK with pushing my teammates every day. I just want my teammates to be better, just as I want to be.”
Carter, who is also from Rochester and played for City Rocks, has known Stewart for years. He described him as the kind of teammate that will lift you when you’re struggling and make you stand when you’re tired. If your body language is off, Stewart will let you know. In mere months, Stewart has started to fill the void left by last season’s strongest voices.
“He’s someone fun to talk to at practice and somebody who leads by example and practices what he preaches,” Carter said. “He always talks. He’s always running the floor. Even when we do down and backs, he’s running.”
Stewart was in eighth grade when he met UW head coach Mike Hopkins, who started recruiting him shortly after — first for Syracuse and then for the Huskies. The two have been building a strong relationship ever since, and that foundation is a major reason why Stewart traveled across the country for college. Hopkins knew what he was getting. Not many freshman can walk into a program and immediately establish the tone.
But Stewart isn’t a typical freshman.
“He’s special for a reason,” Hopkins said. “He’s different. He looks at life differently. … It’s a great example to a lot of the players. Certain guys are just leaders. Some of them you kind of have to make and then some guys, they just have it. The biggest thing with being a leader is whatever you preach, you got to live it. And he lives it.”
‘He’s never a nervous kid’
From the moment Hart met Stewart, a few things became clear. Stewart had the size, the talent, the attitude. A hunger to learn. But it wasn’t until Stewart suffered an injury during a USA Basketball tryout before his sophomore year of high school that a light bulb flicked on.
“It seemed like ever since then, he just has this immense inner fire,” Hart said. “It seems like it’s an undeniable force and that’s what he brings to the court every time he plays. … When he goes up against the best, the other guys want to stop playing because it’s no fun to play against him.”
Telling Stewart an upcoming City Rocks opponent was particularly strong inside was like striking a match. Hart never envied the player that had to walk into the fire.
“I’d be like, ‘Uh-oh. It’s going to be a long day for this guy. (Stewart’s) ready,’” Hart said. “He really embraces the challenge of the big games and the big moment. He’s never a nervous kid, either. There’s no panic in his game. He’s very calm in big moments.”
Stewart was also content to take his development at the right pace. He has a unique understanding of his game, Hart said, and he never forced himself to become something he wasn’t.
He started as a solid ball-handler for a big man. He had good shooting form, too. But Hart advised him to perfect a few post skills first, so that’s what Stewart did. Even when he was advised to shoot more from beyond the arc, he said he didn’t want to until he was ready. It wasn’t until the summer after his junior year that Stewart started shooting — and making — 3-pointers more often. He put the ball on the ground, too, and proved himself to be a capable passer.
Carter noticed all the additions to Stewart’s game when the two started playing one-on-one this offseason.
“He kind of surprised me with some of the things he can do: Handling, shooting, controlling the pass, mid-range game,” Carter said. “And of course, everybody knows he’s a brute. He’s strong. Outside of that, all those other things he can do like dribble and shoot threes and play defense.”
Fellow freshman RaeQuan Battle, a four-star recruit out of Marysville-Pilchuck High School, played against City Rocks in the EYBL last season in Atlanta. Stewart dominated even then, but Battle couldn’t believe how much bigger Stewart had gotten — and how much he had improved — by the time the two arrived at UW.
“Honestly, it’s shocking to me,” Battle said. “Coming from where I’m from, I’ve never seen anyone that big, that efficient around the rim.”
But even at last week’s media day, Stewart stayed true to the mindset that turned him into one of the top prospects in the country. Asked what he was focused on improving heading into his first collegiate season, Stewart pointed to his ability to stretch the floor. Then he quickly amended his response.
“Also not getting away from what got me here,” he said, “which was just being a beast down low and my energy, working hard, running the floor.”
It was a simple answer, almost predictable.
And it demonstrated the exact mindset Hopkins had grown to expect.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Hopkins said, “the way the guy approaches life, how he approaches school, how he approaches treating people, how he approaches taking care of his body, how he approaches every day. It’s pretty rare. It’s pretty cool. He sets the standard for how everybody has to act and what we’re trying to build here.”