LAPORTE — Wise well beyond those 16 young years, LaLumiere junior power forward Isaiah Stewart doesn’t need to take a deep dive to realize where his name sits in the college basketball recruiting game for Notre Dame.
He doesn’t need to see at least one Irish coach at each of his AAU tournament stops in April, but he did. One game, it was assistant Ryan Ayers. Another, fellow assistant Ryan Humphrey. Or associate head coach Rod Balanis. Sometimes a combination of the three, or all of them. Head coach Mike Brey was a constant. Here. There. Everywhere.
He doesn’t need a Tribune reporter rolling across State Road 2 through a burst of rain and wind and lightning last week to spend some time with him after another offseason workout. He doesn’t need the various recruiting sites whose predictions change as often as the forecast of area meteorologists and usually are just as accurate (i.e. wrong), offering their takes on where Stewart will sign in November.
He doesn’t need to hear or see or speak on any of it. He knows.
Knows that if he were to sneak a peek at the Notre Dame recruiting big board back in South Bend, one name would be front and center and atop that wish list. Maybe even in ALL CAPS.
He knows, right?
“Oh, yeah,” Stewart said last week following a 90-minute workout that had him still working on an outside shot that up until his sophomore year of high school back in Rochester, N.Y., was non-existent. “I know that they’re recruiting me really hard and I’m their guy for the 2019 class. They check up on me, see me whenever they can.
“That means a lot.”
That Stewart is the gotta-get guy for Notre Dame in this recruiting cycle could be good for the Irish. Why? History says that Brey gets his top guy. Last year, it was point guard Prentiss Hubb. Got him. The year before that, D.J. Harvey. Got him. The year before that, T.J. Gibbs. Got him. Before that, Matt Ryan. and then Demetrius Jackson. Got them.
Now it’s the 6-foot-8, 240-pound Stewart, a five-star recruit ranked among the nation’s Top 15 overall prospects. He would be the highest-ranked recruit to sign to play for Brey at Notre Dame. Stewart averaged 20.5 points and 11.5 rebounds last year, his first at LaLumiere, when he learned for the first time in his basketball life to do more than just play with his back to the basket. His game got better; so did he.
“He was an absolute beast,” said Lakers coach Pat Holmes, a 2012 Notre Dame graduate, South Bend native and former manager for the Irish men’s basketball team. “Isaiah came to us with some physical abilities that you can’t teach.
“He’s just a physical freak of nature.”
The recently-completed April AAU tour — which gives way to the U17 USA tryouts and the July AAU circuit — allowed Stewart to see Brey and his staff everywhere he went. Coaches are not allowed to talk to prospects during those April weekends, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a little non-verbal interaction between both sides.
It often was initiated by Stewart. In the layup lines. During timeout huddles. Walking off the court at halftime, or back on it for the second half. He’d scan the scores of college basketball coaches in attendance, pick out the guys in the green Notre Dame golf shirts and connect.
“I’ll shoot them a wink just to let them know that, ‘Yeah, you here. I see you,’ ” Stewart said. “They were very visible in the spring. I definitely appreciate that.”
Stewart’s ties to Notre Dame already run pretty tight. He regularly texts with Brey — did it Wednesday before his workout. He’s gotten to know Gibbs, who would be a senior for Stewart’s freshman year. and power forward Elijah Burns played on the same AAU team — the City Rocks out of Albany, N.Y. — as Stewart. When the Rocks were in Indianapolis last month for a weekend tournament, Burns made the drive down U.S. 31 to show support.
“Elijah Burns, that’s my big bro right there,” Stewart said. “He’s always checking up on me. Me and T.J., we’re cool.”
And despite what some recruiting sites say, Stewart hasn’t cooled on Notre Dame. Back in the fall, back before Stewart’s first year at the private school located about 30 minutes from Notre Dame’s campus, he was said to be a 100 percent lock to commit to and sign with Notre Dame. It was over. End the recruitment right then and there. Any other school — and a lot have come calling since fall — had no chance. Stewart was going to Notre Dame.
Back in September, Stewart laughed when he learned that news nugget. He was nowhere close to a college decision. Now those same recruiting sites have Stewart a lock to sign with Duke. If not Duke, then surely Texas. Notre Dame? Seemingly not in the picture. But just as the first time around, Stewart shakes his head and laughs. Nobody knows.
Yes, he’s close to cutting a wish list that includes over 40 scholarship offers. It soon might be eight.
Notre Dame will make that cut. Beyond that, does Stewart know? Really?
“Not at all,” he said. “I find it pretty funny they have recruiting guys who want to predict where I’m going when I don’t even know where I’m going yet.”
Stewart’s college choice may swing on this — does he want to be the next in a revolving door of elite power forward prospects (Marvin Bagley III last year, Zion Williamson this year) to go to Duke, where the roster may again turn completely over next spring, or does he want to join a Notre Dame team that might be ready-made to do something special right away? The Irish graduate only Rex Pflueger off next season’s team. A lot of key pieces will be in place.
Stewart could be a big one. The right one. The winning one.
Wherever he signs, Stewart’s likely not going to be a four-year guy. Or even a three-year guy. Maybe not two. He could be that good. He already looks the part of a prototypical power forward, a guy that scouts at the game’s highest level salivate over.
The longer Stewart’s recruitment goes and the more he shows, the more schools seem to hop aboard. All the big hitters are there. Some not so big. His list just kept growing. and growing. It’s as big as him.
“You can only pick one,” he said. “I want to cut it down, but there are days when it just goes up and down. I want to get my list out and set up my visits and go from there.”
Given how Notre Dame official visits usually go, it would be a shock not to see Stewart in South Bend the weekend of Sept. 1. First big college football weekend. Michigan game. At night. Summer weather’s still in swing. Holiday weekend. A lot of former Irish basketball players will be back. Practice facility might be close to completion. The Irish like to go big the first official visit weekend. This would be really big.
Getting Stewart to campus then is a no-brainer.
“That would be a great visit and a great weekend,” Stewart said.
By then, it might be a ride Stewart can do with his eyes closed. He visited campus in February for the Florida State basketball game. He plans to stay at LaLumiere this summer — when not traveling for AAU or USA basketball — and hopes to have Holmes get him to Notre Dame for pickup games when the Irish reconvene next month for summer school.
“It’s a great place,” he said. “I’m going to get over there.”
Likely a lot. and just maybe after the November signing day, for an extended stay.
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