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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.”

Former Celtic Guerschon Yabusele fined for not looking at flag during Chinese national anthem

Guerschon Yabusele
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Guerschon Yabusele washed out with the Celtics.

So, now the former first-rounder is playing in China – and running into trouble.

The Chinese Basketball Association fined him for not looking at the flag during the national anthem:

Though Yabusele is French, this comes amid heightened tension between the NBA and China. Most Americans will probably find it ridiculous that looking at the flag during the national anthem is required in authoritarian China.

Meanwhile, let’s ostracize anyone who dares not to stand for the Star Spangled Banner.

Portland reportedly applies for disabled player exception after Rodney Hood injury

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Rodney Hood‘s season coming to an end because of a ruptured Achilles was a real blow to Portland — he had become a critical part of their rotation. That has led to a lot of speculation about already shorthanded Portland jumping into the trade market soon looking for someone to absorb those minutes, as well as hitting the buyout market hard next February.

Portland is now looking for a little more money to spend to bring someone in, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The “disabled player exemption” allows a team over some space to go after a replacement for a player lost due to injury. This is a fairly standard process and likely will be approved. Portland can use that money on a free agent (Iman Shumpert is available again) or someone bought out by another team.

Portland is 10-16 on the season, set back in part due to injuries to the front line. The Blazers knew Jusuf Nurkic would miss most of the season, and he was vital to them, but they were counting on Zach Collins to step up and absorb those minutes. Then he needed shoulder surgery. Portland eventually turned to Carmelo Anthony to help along the frontline, and he has performed well enough for them to guarantee his contract for the season.

Portland is going to be active, both looking at free agents and on the trade market. Just don’t expect a Kevin Love deal (he may want it but his contract makes that nearly impossible).

Rumor: Dwight Howard and Chris Paul stated intent to join Mavericks until Howard backed out

Chris Paul and Dwight Howard
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The Mavericks went from winning the 2011 NBA championship to missing the playoffs within two years.

Somewhat by choice.

Of course, they wanted to remain competitive. But they were willing to accept a lower floor to maintain financial flexibility. They let key players – most notably Tyson Chandler – leave in order to chase bigger stars.

Dallas was repeatedly linked to Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, who could’ve become free agents in 2012 but opted in. They finally hit the market in 2013, but once again spurned the Mavericks. Paul re-signed with the Clippers, and Howard left the Lakers for the Rockets.

Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated:

I really think that they, Chris and Dwight, basically wink, wink said they were going to Dallas, from what I’ve heard, and that Dwight backed out.

Word on the street. But we hear a lot of stories. That’s one story I’ve heard.

This is the peril of making arrangements in underground free agency. They’re unbinding. That was especially true with Howard, who waffled through the Dwightmare with the Magic. The Mavericks might have proceeded in the smartest way, but it backfired. Dallas is only now re-emerging upward with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

This also creates a fun “what if?” How good would Dallas have been? Paul remained elite, but Howard and Dirk Nowitzki were slipping. Where would the Clippers have gone with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan but without Paul? Would they still have held the credibility required to lure Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last summer? Where would Houston have turned without Howard as the star to pair with James Harden?

Serge Ibaka says he nearly goaltended Kawhi Leonard’s iconic shot: ‘I would’ve retired’

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Kawhi Leonard hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history – a buzzer-beater that bounced, bounced, bounced, bounced in during Game 7 of last year’s second-round Raptors-76ers series and propelled Toronto toward an eventual title.

Raptors forward Serge Ibaka, via Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

“I didn’t think it was going in. I was under the basket trying to go for the offensive rebound. The ball was bouncing and one time I was so close to going [for it]. Thank God I didn’t because it could have been goaltending. That would’ve been bad. I would’ve retired. If that had happened I would have retired.”

In hindsight, that would’ve been catastrophic. It would have been been bad at the time, too – but only so bad.

The Bucks, Toronto’s opponent in the Eastern Conference finals, looked better than the Raptors. The Western Conference-winning Warriors were widely viewed as invincible. Few would have thought Ibaka’s goaltend would’ve cost Toronto a championship.

Thankfully for him and the Raptors, we now know better.