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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.”

J.R. Smith caught on video beating up man who allegedly vandalized his truck

J.R. Smith
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Sunday was a day of mostly peaceful protests in Los Angeles in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota last week. However, some bad actors used the protests as camouflage to loot and vandalize businesses and property near the protests.

One of those people allegedly broke the window of former NBA player J.R. Smith’s truck — and Smith ran him down and beat him up for it. Video of the beating emerged first on TMZ. (Warning, NSFW language.)

Smith quickly posted a video on his Instagram story trying to get out in front of this, saying the guy broke his truck window in a residential street — and Smith was having none of it.

“I just want you all to know right now, before you all see this s*** somewhere else. One of these little motherf****** white boys didn’t know where he was going and broke my f****** window in my truck. Broke my s***. This was a residential area. No stores over here. None of that s***. Broke my window, I chased him down and whooped his ass.

“So when the footage comes out and you all see it, I chased him down and whooped his ass. He broke my window. This ain’t no hate crime. I ain’t got no problem with nobody and nobody got no problem with me. There’s a problem with the motherf****** system, that’s it. The motherf***** broke my window and I whooped his ass. He didn’t know who window he broke and he got his ass whooped.”

It’s unknown at this time if any other legal action will come out of this, the police and prosecutors have a lot on their plates right now.

Smith was out of the NBA this season, despite getting a couple of workouts with teams.

George Floyd’s death brings back painful memories for Rockets’ Thabo Sefolosha

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Thabo Sefolosha knows what it’s like to be a black man, on the ground, being beaten by police officers.

Such was the scenario when George Floyd died in Minneapolis last week.

And five years ago, Sefolosha found himself in a similarly frightening place.

“I was just horrified by what I saw,” Sefolosha said. “That could have been me.”

Time has not healed all wounds for Sefolosha, the NBA veteran who said he was attacked by a group of New York Police Department officers in April 2015 while they were arresting him outside a nightclub in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood. The leg that was broken in the fracas is fine now. The emotional pain roared back last week when he saw video of Floyd, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air in the final moments of his life as a white police officer — subsequently charged with murder — pressed a knee on his neck.

Sefolosha has seen the video. He hasn’t watched much news since. His experience with police in New York has left him with a deep distrust of law enforcement, the pangs of angst flooding back even when he walks into NBA arenas and sees uniformed officers. And the latest example of police brutality left him even more upset.

“People talk about a few rotten apples,” Sefolosha said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But you know, in my experience and from what we’re seeing, I think it’s deeper than that as a culture that’s deeply rooted in it, to be honest. That’s just my honest opinion. I think it’s really … part of a culture where it’s deeper than just a few bad apples.”

The four officers who were involved in the incident where Floyd died were fired; the one who knelt on Floyd’s neck, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Massive protests have broken out in several cities in recent days, the country torn again over a black man dying at the hands of police.

Sefolosha — a black man of Swiss descent who plays for the Houston Rockets — considered but decided against joining protests in Atlanta, where he is waiting for the resumption of the NBA season that was shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m mad, for sure,” Sefolosha said. “That’s for sure. I mean, it’s 2020. Nobody should have to go through this in this time, especially after black people have given up so much for America. Black people have given up so much and done so much for this country. It’s hurtful to see it this way.”

Sefolosha’s perspective changed forever on April 8, 2015. Chris Copeland, an NBA player at the time, was among three people stabbed outside the club where Sefolosha was that night; police arrived and ordered everyone to leave the area. Sefolosha says he complied but began getting harassed by officers anyway.

Before long, he was on the ground.

Sefolosha’s leg was broken and some ligaments were torn in the fracas, and he was arrested on several charges that a jury needed about 45 minutes to determine were unfounded. He wound up suing for $50 million, alleging his civil rights were violated, settled for $4 million and gave much of that money to a public defenders’ organization working in marginalized communities.

“It changed me a lot, toward the way I see law enforcement in this country,” Sefolosha said. “And also toward the way I see the whole justice system. I went to court and I had to do all of this to prove my innocence. It really got me deep into the system and I’m really skeptical of the whole system.”

NBA players have used their platforms often in recent years to protest racial inequality. Sterling Brown of the Milwaukee Bucks filed a federal civil rights lawsuit after police used a stun gun on him and arrested him over a parking incident in 2018. On Saturday, Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers and Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics were among those taking part in Atlanta protests.

“You see what happened in Minnesota where three human beings with a badge are watching another human being killing somebody,” said Sefolosha, who has played in the NBA since 2006 and intends to return to Switzerland when he retires. “And instead of saying, ‘OK, this is my duty as a human being,’ the duty was more toward not interfering with the other officer and saying, ‘We are clan, we stick together no matter what.’ It should be the other way around.”

The NBA is closing in on finalizing a plan to resume the season in July at the Disney complex near Orlando, Florida. Sefolosha and the Rockets figure to be contenders for a championship when play resumes.

For obvious reasons, Sefolosha’s mind isn’t there yet.

“I’ll be happy to be with my teammates and reunited with basketball in general,” Sefolosha said. “But you know, we’re human beings, and the fight has been going on for too long and the same protests have been going on for too long. I think it’s definitely time for change and that should be a priority for all of us.”

Michael Jordan releases statement: “I am deeply saddened, truly pained, and plain angry”

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Michael Jordan has been famously apolitical through his playing career and after, rarely commenting on social issues. While the “Republicans buy shoes, too” comment has always stuck to him, as Roland Lazenby points out in his biography “Michael Jordan: The Life,” Jordan’s “keep your head down and don’t draw attention” political outlook was passed down as a family demeanor used to survive in rural North Carolina.

However, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer, and the eruptions of protests nationwide, Jordan felt compelled to speak and released this statement.

Jordan’s voice is a powerful one and carries a lot of weight, as do his actions.

How he uses that voice, and the actions he takes going forward, will be watched and can hold a lot of sway.

 

On this date in NBA history: J.R. Smith forgot the score

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There comes a point in almost every NBA playoff series when one team knows it’s beat. That team threw its best punch and the other team took it and won anyway. While no NBA team would never go into the postgame press conference and say “we’re beat,” it shows up in their tone and body language.

In the 2018 NBA Finals, that moment came after Game 1.

Two years ago today, May 31, the Cavaliers went to Golden State and were on the verge of stealing Game 1 on the road. LeBron James had targeted Stephen Curry on switches to keep the Cavaliers ahead, LeBron thought he drew a charge on Kevin Durant but it was overturned on review and called a block, and a back-and-forth end of the game saw the Warriors go up one when Curry drew and and-1 foul on Kevin Love with 23.5 seconds left.

Of course, the Cavs put the ball in LeBron’s hands out top, the Cavaliers got the switch and had Curry trying to guard LeBron, when LeBron threw a bullet pass to a cutting George Hill. Klay Thompson hooked Hill, and Hill went to the ground. The foul was called and Hill went to the free-throw line.  He hit the first and tied the game 107-107.

Then came the moment.

“He thought we were up one,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said after the game, although Smith was selling at the time he was trying to bring the ball out to get a better shot. The Warriors players thought he was trying to get the ball to LeBron, maybe.

Game 1 went to overtime, where the Warriors dominated (17-7) and got the win. After the game, you could feel it around the Cavaliers — this was their chance and they missed it. The series ended in a Golden State sweep.

It’s a legendary moment of the NBA Finals, even if it’s one Smith and Cavaliers fans would like to forget.