Isaiah Stewart never lost faith in his abilities or the Washington Huskies even as the losses mounted and the prospects of a promising season slowly faded.
At his lowest moments, the UW basketball star would often consult with a Seattle sports icon who became a supportive friend and trusted mentor – Russell Wilson.
“It was great to have someone like him talk to about things like leadership and stuff like that,” Stewart said. “With the season that we were going through, he was someone that I could lean on and talk to about those things because he’s the leader of his team, the Seattle Seahawks, and led them to a pretty good season.
“It was great to have him, and I want to say thank you to him.”
Stewart, who declared for the NBA draft last week, considers his relatively new relationship with the NFL quarterback one of the rewards from his short tenure at Washington.
Oftentimes, Wilson talked to Stewart about the demands of leadership and how the 18-year-old freshman could guide a young team through adversity.
“Obviously, things weren’t going as good in the season and he told me that no matter what, never lose that fight and continue to shine God’s light,” Stewart said. “Basically, don’t lose that spirit. Continue to encourage my guys and push them every day.”
Stewart attended one of Wilson’s weekly Bible studies when he approached him afterward and began a formal conversation. From there, a friendship emerged as Wilson, who attended a UW basketball game last season, began taking an interest in Stewart’s career.
“He just started showing support,” Stewart said. “He’s a really great person. So I definitely just appreciate him being there for me while I was there at the University of Washington.”
On the court, the Huskies fell woefully short of preseason expectations and finished last in the Pac-12 at 5-13 and 15-17 overall.
However, Stewart, who was voted to the All-Pac-12 first team, led UW in scoring (17.0 points a game), rebounds (8.8), blocks (2.1), field-goal percentage (57.0%) and minutes (32.2). The 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward also set UW freshman records for blocks (66) and rebounds (281) while starting all 32 games.
“I felt like we were going to be one of the best teams that UW ever had,” Stewart said. “I envisioned and pictured us winning and playing good basketball. Just giving the city of Seattle a good show every night.”
Instead the season fell apart after a 10-2 start at the same time the Huskies lost point guard Quade Green, who was academically ineligible for the final 17 games.
“Quade was a big part of our team,” Stewart said. “He was the point guard. He ran the sets, ran the plays and got us what we needed to get into. When he went down, we were scrambling as to who was going to step up.”
At one point, Washington dropped nine straight games, which tied for the second-longest losing streak in team history. The Huskies won three of their final five games, including a 69-63 victory at Arizona in the regular-season finale.
However, the season ended the following week after a 77-70 loss to the Wildcats in the Pac-12 tournament opener despite Stewart scoring a career-high 29 points and collecting 12 rebounds.
“Before the coronavirus ended everything, I was looking at it like this could be my last college game,” Stewart said. “At the same time, I wanted to keep on playing in this tournament and winning, so I was going to do everything I could to give my team that best chance to win.
“I just went out there with a killer mindset that I wasn’t going to be stopped. No matter what they throw at me or no matter what I see, I was going to do what I had to do to get the job done.”
Since UW’s last game, Stewart has been holed up the past several weeks at his place on campus during the coronavirus outbreak. The solitary confinement has been tough for the hyperactive teenager, who goes out for exercise runs wearing a mask and gloves.
“I’m safe,” he said. “I’m just hanging out. Being inside and trying to practice social distancing. Just trying to encourage people to stay inside so we can get back to normal soon and start living the way we were living before.”
The NBA draft is scheduled for June 25, but teams are reportedly pressuring the league to move the date to no sooner than Aug. 1.
Stewart, who is considered a late first-round draft pick, is eager to sway doubts of naysayers who question his outside shooting and perimeter defensive skills.
“I know a lot of people say what they have to say about my game,” said Stewart, who shot 25 percent (5 of 20) on three-pointers. “I feel like I’m going to do big things at the next level. I’m going to work hard.
“I feel like this is going to be where I work the hardest I’ve ever worked because I just don’t want to make it to the NBA, I want to be known in the league for years and years to come. I’m just going to work my tail off and add whatever I need to add to my game and do what I have to do.”