When sixth overall pick Jonathan Isaac sat back on last year’s draft night and envisioned his rookie season with the Orlando Magic, plaguing ankle injuries and just 27 appearances probably didn’t pop into his mind.
At 6-foot-10 with the ability to move like a gazelle and nail a long-range shot, Isaac starred at Florida State University, but his debut campaign in the big leagues was nothing more than a short, uninspiring cameo. Even then, the entrancing potential he showed in college still glimmered enough to sell Magic fans the hope they sorely crave.
The centerpiece of his enamoring game is his defensive chops, where the 20-year-old already has the tools and mindset to become one the most versatile defenders in the world. He wields his 7-foot-1 wingspan and 38-inch vertical leap like a high-caliber weapon, using them to stifle defenders on the perimeter and at the rim.
Despite the relatively small sample size, the numbers back up the impressive defensive eye-test that Jonathan Isaac has generated. He finished the season as the only player to averaged a steal and a block in under 20 minutes per game. It stems from his quick-footed close-outs and long arms, which helped whittle his opponents down to a 33.3 percent shooting rate when on their spot-up attempts.
When he was targeted by the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, Isaac showed a legitimate ability to put the clamps on guards and wings. The former Seminole held his counterparts to just 0.61 points per possession (PPP) when they attacked him coming off a screen, which ranks him in the 89th percentile in the entire league. Players at 6-foot-10 containing pick-and-roll ball handlers is a huge bonus for defensive schemes, but 6-foot-10 guys who throw the shackles on pick-and-roll ball handlers is a game-changer.
Isaac himself knows how dominant he can be on the energy-driven end of the floor, but he isn’t resting on his laurels.
“I’m not the defender I see myself becoming right now, for sure. There is so many areas of the defense that I don’t do well, and how sometimes I’m out of position and don’t read plays well. So as I grow in that I think I’m going to be a fantastic defender.” Isaac said in his rookie season exit interview.
Hiring defensive wiz Steve Clifford to nurture him and drafting Texas defensive giant Mohamed Bamba to help cover his mistakes is a right-minded way to help Jonathan Isaac become that fantastic defender that he talks about. A luxury many other Orlando lottery picks haven’t had.
With a clean bill of health manifesting itself into a bigger role, Isaac’s defensive exploits should start to become widely noticed in his sophomore season. In order to truly flourish in an expanded role, the tender 20-year-old will have to grow up quickly on the other end of the court though.
The rookie version of Isaac was a borderline disaster offensively. He averaged 5.4 points on a frightening 37.9 percent shooting. Unlike his defensive game, Isaac often looked way out of his depth with the ball in hand.
Analytics scream to get to the rim because it’s the easiest bucket available, Jonathan Isaac can tell you all about that. When the combo forward shot from inside the restricted area, he nailed a sizzling 73.9 percent, which places him above the likes of Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Karl-Anthony Towns – albeit on far fewer attempts.
However as the attempts get further away from the basket, the field goal percentage falls off a cliff. He shot a dismal 6-47 (12.8%) in the mid-range area, often settling and clanking instead of maneuvering his long frame to the rack. While the potential to stretch the floor effectively is still very much present, his 34.8 percent clip will have to improve if he wants to maximize his offensive threat.
The recent Summer League was our first time seeing Isaac play competitively since his erratic rookie season ended, where he averaged 14.3 points, 7 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 2.7 blocks over three outings. The problem was he still shot at a disappointing 35 percent from the field, at times looking out of control and too eager to show the world he can get buckets.
Looking noticeably bigger at the Las Vegas tournament, Isaac continued to flash signs of that tantalizing two-way stardom. His added muscle helped him dominate even more defensively, and the development of his mid-range jump shot seems to have taken its expected upswing.
Questions have been raised about how he and Bamba can coexist on a basketball court with limited offensive skill sets, but Isaac was quick to shut any talk of that down in a Summer League media session.
“I think there is no doubt about it that we can be effective with two big guys on the floor … we move around, we set screens, you saw [Bamba] knock down an open 3 tonight. This dude can move all over the floor, I can move, we can switch, we can guard pretty much everybody,” he said.
With his new running mate, a coach who can mold him defensively and another chance to prove his offensive game was just rookie season stumbles, whether or not Jonathan Isaac can consistently play at the level he is capable of in 2018-19 could make or break him.