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Jonathan Isaac could end Magic’s long-running star search

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Even as the No. 6 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Magic forward Jonathan Isaac considered himself a “project.” He was committed to developing, taking it slowly if necessary. Yet, he also wanted to perform well. And he was a 20-year-old adjusting to professional life. As much as he tried to stay balanced, pressure was mounting.

Then, Isaac suffered an ankle injury that November that would sideline him most of his rookie year.

“I could take a deep breath and just get my head right,” Isaac said.

Most players would be devastated by that setback. That Isaac found the blessing in disguise says something about him – and how he got where he is today.

Isaac has emerged as one of the NBA’s top young talents, a real candidate to become Orlando’s first consensus star since Dwight Howard. I already regret omitting Isaac from our list of the top 50 players in 5 years. He is especially a revelation for an expensive, stuck-in-the-middle Magic team.

Though it’s far too soon to shut the door on it, Aaron Gordon still hasn’t made the leap. Markelle Fultz has encouragingly found his footing as a helpful NBA player – but without a reliable jumper, which evaporates his high-end upside. Mo Bamba has struggled so far in the NBA. Nikola Vucevic (an All-Star last year, but likely a one-time All-Star), Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross are too old to expect them to have significant untapped potential. Orlando is too good to tank into elite draft position.

If the Magic are going to get a breakthrough star anytime soon, Isaac is by far their best bet.

“I just want to be great,” Isaac said. “I just want to be an all-around player. I want to be able to help my team win every single night and be the reason why we win.”

That’s big talk for a player who has been content to blend in since entering the spotlight.

Isaac, who considered jumping straight from prep school to the NBA, enrolled at Florida State as a clear one-and-done prospect. Yet, he attempted just eight shots per game for the Seminoles as a freshman, often deferring to Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes.

“He came in and never talked about it, never said, ‘I’m one-and-done. I’m out of here,'” Bacon said. “He just played the game the right way every night. Just a great guy.”

One of Isaac’s biggest marks in Tallahassee was repeatedly blaring loud music early in the morning. Bacon even heard it across the hall.

“You can’t really complain to Jon, though, because he wasn’t a guy that did anything wrong,” Bacon said.

Isaac continues to push his limits.

He recently brought up Pascal Siakam, who won Most Improved Player, won a championship then signed a max contract extension with the Raptors. A ring is far-fetched any time soon, but those other goals are within reach for Isaac.

Isaac will be eligible for his own rookie-scale extension next offseason. His projected max? About $181 million over five years. The way Isaac is trending, the Magic – even with all their bigs – might pay it.

A Most Improved Player candidate, Isaac has increased his PIPM from +0.2 last season to +2.3 this season – a jump of 2.1. That’s one of the biggest increases in the league.

Here are the biggest PIPM increases in the NBA, with the left side of the bar showing a player’s previous high, the right side of the bar showing his 2019-20 mark and the difference listed in the middle (minimum: 500 minutes):

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Player Previous high 2019-20 Difference
Luka Doncic (DAL) +1.0 +6.2 5.2
Devonte' Graham (CHA) -1.9 +1.7 3.6
Jarrett Allen (BRK) +0.0 +2.7 2.7
Kelly Oubre (PHO) -1.6 +0.9 2.5
Wendell Carter (CHI) -1.6 +0.8 2.4
Jonathan Isaac (ORL) +0.2 +2.3 2.1
Brandon Ingram (NOP) -1.1 +1.0 2.1
Collin Sexton (CLE) -4.3 -2.2 2.1
Evan Fournier (ORL) -0.1 +1.9 2.0
T.J. Warren (IND) -1.0 +1.0 2.0

Unlike most others on that leaderboard, Isaac is coming off a pretty reasonable year. Among rotation regulars who’d already posted a positive PIPM, only Luka Doncic and Jarrett Allen increased theirs by more.

Isaac rates so highly because of his defense. He has a shot at an honor that eluded Siakam – an All-Defensive team.

The 6-foot-11 Isaac covers a lot of ground with his mobility and length. He reads the floor well, especially for his age. His second jump is elite. He can bite on pump fakes and still re-elevate quickly enough to contest shots. His versatility allows him to guard players across the positional spectrum, and he’s an active help defender.

Now, his main-matchup individual defense has caught up with Isaac getting stronger over the offseason.

“Just watching film, I like the way that I look,” said Isaac, who leads the NBA with 2.8 blocks per game. “Like I said, you watch film just, ‘Man, you look good. You look bigger.'”

Isaac ranks second among forwards in defensive PIPM (minimum: 500 minutes):

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The dramatic growth for Isaac could come offensively. He’s averaging 13.1 points per game (up from 9.6 last season), but his usage percentage remains below average (18.7).

Yet, Isaac shows flashes – dunks from way above the rim, smooth outside shooting, improved ball-handling.

Could he eventually become more of a go-to player?

“The nature of most players that you coach is this: They have a way that they play, and they improve, but the very nature of how they play doesn’t usually change much,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “A guy who builds his game around defending, rebounding – usually, that has to remain his strength. And then as he grows in say other areas, you become a more well-rounded player. He’s not going to go from being a great team defender with a defensive mindset to a guy who’s going to want the the ball every play to play in the pick-and-roll. I don’t think. It doesn’t usually happen.”

Isaac isn’t so sure.

Though he played the way Clifford described in college and in the NBA, it wasn’t always that way.

“In high school, I was the man,” Isaac said, beaming. “In high school, I was the guy. I remember, I was putting up – I had 44 one night. I was putting ’em up. All 3s, too.”

Does he want to shift toward that role again?

“Absolutely,” Isaac said. “I think every guy wants to be that guy. I want to continue to work until I am.”

Isaac said he’s experimenting offensively, testing his limits and getting increasingly ambitious. Creating off the dribble, posting up – what’s his ceiling?

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m out there and I can do whatever,” Isaac said.

So far, he hasn’t strayed too far for his coach’s liking. “Everything he does on the floor makes sense to me,” Clifford said. Isaac gets benefit of the doubt because he works hard and carries a positive disposition. His attitude is so welcome.

Even in a short interview, Isaac repeatedly brings up a mantra.

“I’m not where I want to be,” Isaac said. “But I’m much, much farther along than where I started.”

Kemba Walker stops personal losing streak to LeBron James at 28, Celtics top Lakers

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BOSTON (AP) — Kemba Walker finally beat LeBron James, and he did it by helping the Boston Celtics send the Los Angeles Lakers to their biggest loss of the season.

Walker ended a career-long losing streak against James, scoring 20 points to beat him for the first time in 29 tries and lead the Celtics past the rival Lakers 139-107 on Monday night.

“I’m happy I got one at least, before he goes,” Walker said with a laugh after the Celtics snapped their three-game losing streak. “Who knows how long he can play, because he’s just incredible. But you know, it’s only one. One and 28.”

Jaylen Brown scored 20 points, drawing a taunting technical after dunking over James, and Enes Kanter had 18 points and 11 rebounds for Boston.

“I ain’t going to lie, that was pretty nice, pretty awesome,” Brown said. “LeBron, he’s gotten so many other guys. Just to be out there against one of the best players to ever play the game is an honor. I always like that matchup and it gives me a little extra boost.”

James said there was no shame in getting beaten — this time.

“Why would I take it personally? It’s part of basketball,” he said. “It’s not the first time I got dunked on. It might not be the last time I get dunked on. But Jaylen’s been playing exceptionally well this year. It was a good play.”

The Celtics gave up the first eight points of the game but turned things around when Anthony Davis, playing for the first time in almost two weeks, went to the bench with a pair of fouls 49 seconds apart early in the first quarter.

“The less he plays, the better for everybody else,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

James had 15 points and 13 assists for the Lakers, who had won 10 of their previous 11 games. But the Celtics made 13 of their first 22 3-point attempts to open a 103-75 lead in the third quarter — the biggest against Los Angeles all season until Boston made it a 34-point game in the fourth.

“We were fortunate to put the ball in the basket quite a bit,” said Stevens, whose team shot 56% overall. “The ball going in masks some things.”

Walker’s 28 games without a win against James was second in NBA history only to Sherman Douglas’ 0-30 head-to-head record against Michael Jordan.

“If anybody: him. The guy I couldn’t beat, it’d be him. He’s such a great player, he’s done so much in this league,” said Walker, who spent the first eight years of his career in Charlotte. “He’s beaten a lot of guys. I bet you there’s a lot of people who don’t have a winning record against LeBron James.”

 

Lakers, 76ers reportedly interested in trade for Derrick Rose

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Derrick Rose‘s renaissance has come to the point this season he is in the running for Sixth Man of the Year, averaging 18.3 points, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 rebounds per game (before Monday’s game against the Wizards).

The Pistons are in the mix for a playoff spot in the East — three games back of the eighth-seed Nets, who are finally getting healthy — but with Blake Griffin out for the season they are expected to be sellers at the deadline. That means Rose, a guy who could help a number of contending teams.

The Lakers and 76ers are among those interested, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and multiple teams with championship aspirations have expressed interest in trading for Detroit Pistons guard Derrick Rose, league sources told Yahoo Sports…

The Lakers and Sixers are in search of point guard assistance for the stretch run, sources said.

The Lakers need a second playmaker as their offense falls by 9.8 points per 100 possessions when LeBron James is off the court. To make the deal work, the Lakers would have to dangle Kyle Kuzma plus someone to fill the salary (Avery Bradley would work but that would cost Los Angeles another starter; DeMarcus Cousins and Quinn Cook works, too, but why would the Pistons want them?). The Lakers are limited in picks they can send out after the haul they sent to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis deal.

The 76ers need a playmaking point guard to go next to Ben Simmons at points, ideally one who can stretch the floor (Rose is shooting just 31.8 percent from three). The Sixers would likely dangle Zhaire Smith and maybe Mike Scott to make the salaries work.

Expect the Pistons to listen to offers up to the deadline, playing teams off each other to get the best possible deal. But Rose may well be on the move before Feb. 6.

Chris Paul scores 28, leads Thunder rally to hand Rockets fourth straight loss

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HOUSTON (AP) — Chris Paul scored 28 points and Danilo Gallinari added 25 as the Oklahoma City Thunder rallied from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat cold-shooting James Harden and the Houston Rockets 112-107 on Monday.

Paul scored 27 of his 28 points in the first half against his former team. Gallinari and Dennis Schroder, who scored 17 of his 23 points after halftime, carried the Thunder after the break.

Former Thunder player Russell Westbrook had 32 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds for Houston. Harden had 29 points but was astonishingly inefficient, making 1 of 17 3-point attempts, as the Rockets’ losing streak stretched to a season-high four games.

Oklahoma City used a 6-0 run, highlighted by a dunk from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander after he stole the ball from Harden, to put the Thunder up 108-105 with about a minute left.

Harden made a layup for Houston to cut the lead to one, but Schroder made a jump shot with 28 seconds remaining to make it 110-107. Russell Westbrook missed a 3-pointer on the other end and Gilgeous-Alexander added two free throws to secure the victory.

Houston had a 15-point lead before the Thunder scored 13 straight points to get within 100-98 with 4 1/2 minutes to go. Gallinari led the way for Oklahoma City in that stretch, making two 3-pointers and adding three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt.

Harden made one of two free throws after that but Gallinari struck again seconds later with another 3 that tied it at 101-all. Gilgeous-Alexander then made one of two free throws to give the Thunder their first lead since the first quarter.

Westbrook made Houston’s first field goal in more than four minutes with a layup with just more than three minutes left. He then added another layup after a steal seconds later to give the Rockets a 105-102 lead with about two minutes to go.

The Thunder trailed by 16 points after three quarters, but a 9-2 run, with five points from Schroder, got them within 91-82 with about 9 1/2 minutes left.

Houston trailed by as many as 10 in the first half but led by seven at halftime and used a 9-3 run to open the third quarter and push it to 73-60. P.J. Tucker had a 3-pointer in that stretch and Westbrook added four points.

Houston scored the last four points in a third quarter where Oklahoma City scored just 14 points to make it 87-71 entering the fourth.

 

J.J. Redick: Players more concerned with Instagram than winning

J.J. Redick
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J.J. Redick transformed himself from bust to NBA success.

He changed his habits and outlook. He worked hard and learned how to optimize his fit. That partially explains why the Pelicans signed the veteran last summer.

Why aren’t more players so diligent in their work?

Redick on “The JJ Redick Podcast With Tommy Alter“:

There’s just too much stuff going on. There’s too many people in your ear. There’s not enough time in the day, probably, for some guys. They’ve got Fortnite to go to. They’ve got to worry about getting a fit off for pregame. This is an issue. I really believe this. I think there’s more guys concerned with getting a pregame fit on Instagram than they are worrying about the win and loss of a basketball game. I stand by that statement.

Maybe some players are more concerned with Instagram than winning. That’s tough to evaluate from afar. I’m not sure Redick – who’s obviously not in anyone’s mind but his own – is close enough to make that evaluation, though he obviously has more access to see how NBA players act.

But players have always held interests outside basketball. They always will. Redick doesn’t need to look far to consider that. This quote comes from his podcast.

That Redick gripes about this modern technology – Fortnite, Instagram – makes him sound like an old grump. Why not rail against players who party too much? There are surely players who indulge in that classic distraction.

Not every player is obsessed primarily with winning. Yet, I’m unconvinced that’s any more or less true now than with a prior generation.