Isaiah Stewart Will Not Let Anyone Outwork Him

On Oct. 29, 1978, Dela Stewart left Jamaica on a contract to cut sugar cane in Florida. He spent about two months doing that — “it was hard work, man,” he tells me — before traversing the United States doing farm work with a myriad of fruits and vegetables.

He eventually settled down in Rochester, N.Y. in 1996, where he was a construction worker in a labor union. He would man the jackhammer, and Dela’s had surgeries on both shoulders, his knee, and a toe because of it, but he relished the hard work.

All of this is important context for when you see his son, Isaiah, play basketball. Because when you have an understanding of the man that raised the former University of Washington standout, things start falling into place on why no member of the 2020 Draft class can touch Isaiah Stewart’s motor.

“I knew what it was to work hard, have a chip on your shoulder,” Isaiah told Dime. “My dad displayed that my whole life.

“Having that Jamaican blood in me, something I take pride in,” he continues. “Jamaican people are very prideful. Not only that, I’m not saying that as a bad way, but they just take pride in where they’re from, how hard they work, and just getting it out the mud. That’s something me and my pops always talk about.”

Isaiah admits that Dela raised him and his brother, Martin, strict. In walking me through one of their days as kids, Dela didn’t give them a ton of flexibility: “You come from school, you eat your dinner, you take your shower, you go upstairs and you do your homework, you go to bed and sleep and get up in the morning and catch that bus again while daddy’s gone to work,” he says.

There was room in this strict upbringing for sports. Isaiah tried his hands at boxing and soccer (well, he tried his feet at this one, I suppose) while he was growing up. Dela told him that boxing wasn’t for him. Soccer wasn’t really his thing, either. So he played basketball, as he was always the biggest kid in his class, but it took Isaiah some time to get into it.

He remembers a switch flipping in “fourth or fifth grade.” The kids in his class would always want to know who was best hooper. They’d head to gym class, play, and the more Isaiah competed against everyone else, the more driven he became to be the king of the court.

“It was always the basketball players in the class, we split up and have teams,” Isaiah says. “We always kept records, every gym class. Then we kept one-on-one records, who’s the best. And then it was basically squads and posses, like, this is the captain of this crew and people will be like, ‘Yeah, he’s the best in the class.’ I just beat them all, one by one, just knocked them off the list. Kept checking it off until nobody could say they beat me or they’re better than me.”

He idolized Patrick Ewing, to the point that he wears his fellow Jamaican’s No. 33 whenever he steps on the floor. While guys like Bam Adebayo and Montrezl Harrell — other undersized centers (he’s 6’9) who can find ways to make an impact — get his close attention now, Ewing’s game, particularly his ability to face up and hit jumpers from the midrange, has always stood out.

“Everybody talks about LeBron and all those guys,” Isaiah says of his upbringing. “Those are guys I was watching, guys that all the kids root for. But I only think I really cared at that point, I was always focused on Patrick Ewing, watching his highlights and stuff.”

Winning was second-nature for Isaiah as a kid — Dela recalls Rochester’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School No. 9 team winning every game they played with Isaiah on the floor, same for the church league for which he suited up. As he got into high school, the success kept rolling in for Isaiah, earning his conference’s player of the year award as a freshman.

It didn’t take long for Isaiah to believe he needed something different. He made his way onto USA Basketball’s radar and was viewed as a five-star prospect, and wanted a level of competition greater than what he experienced in Rochester. This desire for battles with the top players and high school programs in America drove him to La Lumiere, a prestigious high school program in Indiana.

For a kid who grew up in a home so close-knit that sleepovers weren’t allowed, there was a transition period that came with packing up his things and moving to Indiana, although Isaiah admits that it was less weird and more a new thing that he needed to get used to. Dela stressed that getting away from home could help him achieve what he wanted to as a basketball player, and getting into this new environment let Isaiah laser focus on ball — he’d work out twice a day in the summer between his junior and senior year and didn’t return home to Rochester.

It all paid off in the form of five stars from every recruiting service, a 30-1 record as a senior, invites to just about every All-Star Game you can make as a high schooler, the Naismith Prep Player of the Year award, and the Mr. Basketball USA award. Scholarship offers were plentiful, too — 247Sports lists out nearly 40 formal offers from powerhouses like Duke, Kentucky, and Michigan State.

When it came time to pick a college, Isaiah decided to rely on a relationship he built up at home. When he was 14, playing ball in the summer before he made his way to high school, he got close with then-Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins. If you’re a good player in Upstate New York, it stands to reason that Jim Boeheim’s program is going to want you to come play at the Carrier Dome, which was very much the case with the star big man who grew up an hour or so away.

Hopkins was something of an institution at Syracuse — he went there in 1989 to play, and after a short professional career, returned in 1995 as an assistant. But in March of 2017, the California native decided to return to the west coast, taking a job as the head coach at the University of Washington. Nearly two years later, some of the seeds he began to plant during his time at Syracuse blossomed when Isaiah became the highest-rated recruit in Huskies history.

“Hop, I had that relationship with, so that played a part in the recruitment process,” Isaiah says. “I have relationships with every school, but me and Hop relationship was just different. We built that when I was 14 years old, when I was so young. So that was definitely the deal-breaker right there.”

As was the case with every player in college basketball last season, Isaiah’s season in Seattle was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Huskies had a tough campaign, going 15-17, but Stewart put up big numbers, averaging 17 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks in 32.2 minutes per game.

In his eyes, Washington afforded him the opportunity to do something that was crucial in his development: He never had to worry about the coaching staff having too quick of a hook if something went wrong.

“Everything can’t go perfect,” Isaiah says. “Mistakes happen, and just learning from them. That’s what I loved about Coach Hop and the coaching staff. I was the guy who got double, triple[-teamed] every single game, and I made mistakes, but they allowed me to play through them. We just sat down the next day, looked at them and learned from it.”

The one thing he’s never had to learn is how to get up for a game. For Isaiah, there is only one way to “play the game the right way,” and that’s as “someone who plays with a lot of energy, someone who loves to get his nose in the dirt, and just a guy who has an excellent motor.”

You’ll be stunned to learn that Dela appreciates how hard his son plays. He raised him to not fear anyone, and to never back down from a challenge that might come his way when he goes up against another big man. He’s an especially big fan of when Isaiah gets the ball near the rim — “I like when he dunks the ball, boy,” he says with the kind of pride that can only come from a father watching his son succeed.

An NBA team is going to bring all those dunks to their organization this week when they opt to take Isaiah in the Draft. Dela wants three things to happen to his son on Wednesday night: “I hope God blesses him, and keeps him healthy and strong, and he gets drafted and goes to the right team,” he says

Isaiah has plenty of interests off the court. Real estate is one, he’s a big reader (he recommends To Kill a Mockingbird and Gym Candy, and recently enjoyed Chopped Wood Carry Water), and during his time in Washington, he connected with folks like Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy, the latter of whom is a “mentor.” He’s curious about how he can become a better leader, or what he can take from the worlds of football or technology and apply them to his own life, both on and off the basketball court.

But at the end of the day, he’s gotten to where he is now as a basketball player. He can see plenty of places where he needs to improve — “We went into this process by looking back at this past season, watching my film, seeing areas I need to get better in,” he says. “The main areas were being able to knock down shots, passing. I’m still working on IQ, being better at that. And being able to play in a short roll scenario.” — but he’s willing to bet on his ability to outwork anyone.

“You could be gifted with some things other people are not, but I have no problem getting it the hard way and going to the gym, working on my craft,” Isaiah says. “It may take some time to get it, but I’m going to get it.”

As for where he ends up going, Isaiah wants to be in a place that lets him, one day, look at his career and hold his head high.

“I want to win the championship,” Isaiah says when asked about where he sees himself 15 years down the line. “That’s a long career, and I want to be considered at that time as going into, hopefully, being a Hall of Famer, and just looking back at my career and saying, ‘I proved the doubters wrong. I gave it my all and I had a dominant career.’”