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.
“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):
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):
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.”
NBA Power Rankings: Philadelphia’s length, defense, has it looking down at league
It’s early in the NBA season and that means not only means the NBC Sports NBA Power Rankings are back, but there will be huge swings the first few weeks. We’re learning who is better than we thought, who is worse, and then there are the teams just on a hot (or cold) streak. Here are the rankings after a week of the NBA season, but expect big shifts the first few weeks.
1. 76ers (3-0, Last week No. 3). Size and defense are winning out for Philadelphia early on. Their size wore down Boston on opening night, and the combination of Josh Richardson and impressive rookie Matisse Thybulle ground down and smothered Trae Young. Questions about where the shooting will come from on this team still exist — they take an average number of threes but are hitting just 32 percent so far — but a defense allowing less than a point per game is getting them wins.
2. Clippers (2-1, LW 7).Kawhi Leonard is dishing the ball like never before — he is averaging 7.5 assists per game, when he had never been above 3.5 per game before. Or, look at it this way: He is assisting on (an estimated) 47.6% of teammates buckets when he is on the floor, when he has never been above 19% in any previous season. The Clippers have impressed to start the season with an insanely efficient offense, but their defense has not been good (25th in the league on Cleaning The Glass, which eliminates garbage time). If that doesn’t improve it will catch up with them.
3. Bucks (2-1, LW 1).Giannis Antetokounmpo fouling out of his first two games was a surprise, but the Greek Freak is still putting up monster numbers — 24.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 9 assists per game — and he’s still making game-saving plays like against Miami. The Bucks defense has been pedestrian so far this young season, but expect that to turn around.
4. Timberwolves (3-0, LW 18).Karl-Anthony Towns is locked in, seems to have taken another leap forward this season, and has put up monster numbers — 32 points, 13.3 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 blocks per game so far. He’s been incredibly efficient and much more active on defense. Andrew Wiggins has looked much better… in the fourth quarter. Only. He’s shooting 33 percent in the first half, but has averaged 7.7 points per game on 57.1% shooting (inlacing 57% from three) in the fourth quarter. The NBA doesn’t really have a closer out of the bullpen role, but Wiggins is trying.
5. Jazz (3-1, LW 4). Their offense has been clunky this season, not always getting open looks and guys missing open shots when they do come. Only one game has seen Utah score more than a point per possession (Sacramento) but thanks to an elite defense keeping opponents at below a point per possession also they are 3-1. Internally, they expect the offense to turn around as guys just get more familiar and comfortable with each other. Mike Conley isn’t going to shoot 20% overall and 15% from three all season.
6. Lakers (3-1, LW 6). So far this season Anthony Davis has spent three quarters (74% officially) of his time at the power forward spot and one quarter (26%) of the time at center. AD at the five worked well against Utah, which drops Rudy Gobert back in the paint and the Lakers needed to draw him out. Wherever he plays he’s putting up numbers, including a historic 40 points and 20 rebounds in just three quarters against Memphis.
7. Spurs (3-0, LW 13). Before an injury robbed him of last season, the Spurs were quietly preaching the improvement in DeJonte Murray’s jump shot. The jumper is a work in progress but Murray is scoring — he is shooting 54.5% from the floor this season (up from 44.3 the last time he played), and his True Shooting Percentage is at an impressive 60.2 percent. Mostly, he’s getting to the rim more and finishing there at a high rate (84.2%, that will come back to earth). The Spurs are undefeated, and while the wins over the Knicks and Wizards are not going to turn heads, beating the Trail Blazers in Portland is impressive.
8. Heat (3-1, LW 15).Kendrick Nunn for Rookie of the Year? Don’t laugh. The undrafted, unheralded two guard is averaging 21 points a game, shooting 44 percent from three, and has played his way into the starting lineup in front of Goran Dragic. It’s a long season, but the undrafted rookie has impressed early and may be another steal for the Heat scouting staff. They went 2-1 in three games without Jimmy Butler (out for the birth of his child) and one of those wins was in overtime against Milwaukee. Butler returned and the Heat knocked off the Hawks.
9. Celtics (2-1, LW 8). The Celtics have two interesting big man prospects — “Time Lord” Robert Williams and Tacko Fall — and both have gotten a little NBA run. The Celtics offense takes a big leap forward when Williams is in the game, but he just makes too many mistakes, particularly on defense (chasing blocks he shouldn’t, for example). Both just need time on the court and should probably get it with the Maine Red Claws. As for the rest of the roster, after looking overmatched on opening night in Philly, the Celtics picked up a good win in Toronto and an expected one against New York. Wednesday night is a good test against Milwaukee.
10. Mavericks (3-1, LW 14).Luka Doncic is putting up numbers — 25 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 6.8 assists a game — and Kristaps Porzingis is right with him, scoring 22.3 a night with 7.8 boards. However, when they have been on the court together this season the Mavericks have been outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions, with the offense being the weak link. Don’t expect that to last. Rick Carlise is clearly still toying with lineups, trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
11. Nuggets (3-1, LW 2). Two of their wins came despite them trailing by double digits, and they gutted out a win in Phoenix despite Michael Beasley’s horrible foul of Ricky Rubio on a half court heave. They came back to earth a little against Dallas Tuesday, but Denver seems on track for a high seed again (despite the slip in these rankings). Denver has really missed Jamal Murray when he sits, the offense has scored less than a point per possession and the team gets outscored by 2.4 per 100.
12. Raptors (3-1, LW 9). When Pascal Siakam got a max extension, there were those questioning if he really would grow into that contract and be worth it. So far, yes. Through four games he’s averaging 27.5 points per game, shooting 42.9% from three, and has a team best PER because he’s so efficient. The other guy standing out in Toronto: Fred Van Vleet, who is scoring 18 points a game and shooing 40.7% from three. He’s going to be one of the biggest name free agents next July and he’s going to see a lot of zeros after the first number on his check.
13. Rockets (2-1, LW 5).Russell Westbrook and James Harden have found a balance on offense already, and the Rockets have an impressive 109.3 offensive rating so far. However, Houston is simply not consistent defensively and that is going to catch up with them at some point, likely in the postseason (and against elite teams in the league). During the regular season, the combination of Harden and Westbrook should be able to cover up the D with energy and scoring. That theory will be put to a better test as they head out on a four game road trip.
14. Suns (2-2, LW 25). The fourth best net rating in the NBA? A defense that gives up less than a point per possession? Devin Booker hustling and making plays on defense? The Phoenix Suns are arguably the biggest surprise in the NBA to start the season and Monte Williams deserves a lot of credit for coaching this team up. They’ve had a tough schedule to start the season, and they have had to do most of this without the suspended Deandre Ayton, which makes it all seem sustainable. The Suns look legitimate.
15. Hawks (2-2, LW 24). Trae Young is out for at least a couple of weeks, and that is bad news for Atlanta — the Hawks are 22.5 points per 100 possessions better this season when Young is on the court. Or, put in raw numbers, Atlanta is +28 when Young has been on the court this season and -24 when he has sat. Atlanta’s backup point guard was supposed to be Evan Turner but he is out injured (left Achilles pain), which means just-claimed-off-waiver Tyrone Wallace has a lot on his shoulders.
16. Trail Blazers (2-2, LW 11). This ranking may be a little low because no team has a tougher schedule to start the season than Portland — six of their first eight on the road, and the two home games are the Nuggets and Sixers. Going against those good teams has had Portland taking fewer threes than a season ago and making fewer (33.3% so far this season), something that’s going to need to improve if they want to climb back up the standings.
17. Thunder (1-3, LW 23). Oklahoma City has kept games close because of an impressive defense holding teams down to less than a point per possession this young season. The offense showed up against Golden State in that beatdown, and they put up points against Houston, but buckets have not come easily to OKC. The standout has been Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is averaging 23.8 points per game, both getting to the rim and knocking down his threes. Danilo Gallinari is playing well enough to make other teams covet him in a trade.
18. Wizards (1-2, LW 26).Isaiah Thomas is back and getting his chance, playing almost 20 minutes against the Spurs and scoring 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-10 from three. The biggest positive for Washington’s future may be a solid start to the season buy rookie Rui Hachimura, who is averaging 16.3 points a night on 46.9% shooting. He’s not hitting threes yet, he doesn’t get to the line enough, but the rookie has potential.
19. Nets (1-2, LW 12). Whatever the Nets think of Kyrie Irving’s mood swings and attitude, the guy is carrying their offense — 37.7 points per game with a ridiculous 61.6 true shooting percentage. The Nets know what they have — that’s why they gave away mock Irving jerseys to fans the night the Nets took on the Knicks. That’s some quality trolling of Knicks fans (who, of course, showed up at the Barclay’s Centre to boo Irving for not wanting to play for James Dolan).
20. Pistons (0-0, LW 20). Considering Blake Griffin remains sidelined to start the season, the fact the Pistons have a middle-of-the-pack offense is a positive sign. Andre Drummond has been in “pay me my money mode” heading into free agency averaging 21 points and 16.3 rebounds a game, but the surprise is an efficient Derrick Rose giving them 21.5 points a game off the bench.
21. Bulls (1-3, LW 22). Chicago has struggled with the three-ball this season, attempting almost 36 a game but hitting just 27.5 percent of them. Thaddeus Young has been good from deep (43.8%) and Zach LaVine respectable (34.8%) but Otto Porter (21.1%) and especially Lauri Markkanen (18.2% on 6.8 attempts a game) have to get those shots to fall. Or stop taking them. Games against Cleveland, Detroit, and Indiana give the Bulls a chance to right the ship this week
22. Magic (1-2, LW 19).Markelle Fultz is playing well in his sixth man role, averaging 12.3 points a game and not shying away from the three ball when it’s open (4.3 attempts per game, hitting 23.1%). Paired with Al-Farouq Aminu and Mo Bamba, the trio has given Orlando a solid bench that Steve Clifford can trust.
23. Cavaliers (1-2, LW 29). He may just be playing his way into a trade, but Tristan Thompson has started the season strongly averaging 19.3 points and 12.3 rebounds a game this season while shooting 60% overall. He even drained a three. Collin Sexton has looked improved and solid this season, but the Sexton/Darius Garland backcourt has a ways to go (the Cavs have a net rating of -11 when those two have share the floor this season, with the offense in particular sputtering.
24. Warriors (1-2, LW 10). Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Warriors’ offense has been good enough, actually, top 10 in the league so far. The defense is dead last — that is where games are lost. Some of that is bad luck (teams are shooting 43.2 percent from three against them, that will come back to earth a little) but it’s mostly not having a real defensive rim protector or good wing defenders. Draymond Green’s value as a switching defender onto bigs is only effective if you’re trying to get away from the original defender, teams aren’t really intimidated by the Warriors’ defensively.
25. Knicks (1-3, LW 27). After stumbling through Summer League, RJ Barrett has come out and found a groove to start the season averaging 20.5 points per game, shooting 50% from the floor (and 46.7% from three), and pulling down 7.5 rebounds a game. He’s one of the guys (along with Ja Morant and Kendrick Nunn) stepping forward early and showing that Zion Williamson cannot just return and waltz to the Rookie of the Year award.
26. Pelicans (0-4, LW 21). It was a good week for Brandon Ingram. First, other potential free agent targets next summer signed extensions with their teams (Jaylen Brown, Bradley Beal, Kyle Lowry, etc.) making him one of the biggest names in the class. Then he has gone out and looked like a guy who deserves to get paid, averaging 27.3 points and 9.5 rebounds a night. A few teams — the Knicks, Hawks, Hornets and others — will have cap space to spend next summer and may see Ingram as the kind of versatile scorer on the wing they could use.
27. Pacers (0-3, LW 16). Without Victor Oladipo it was right to expect some stumbles out of the gate in Indiana, but this has been ugly — a bottom 10 offense and defense with losses to Detroit and Cleveland. Against the Pistons, Drummond pushed around Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, which was concerning. What should really be concerning is this is the soft part of the Pacers schedule, it gets much tougher in a little over a week. Indiana needs to stockpile a few wins before things get harder.
28. Grizzlies (1-3, LW 28). This team is fun to watch, an early League Pass favorite, and that starts with rookie Ja Morant. He is averaging 17.5 points a game, dishing out five assists, shooting 42% from three and even blocking Kyrie Irving’s shot with the game on the line. His athletic and skill are on display and are must watch. Even if they aren’t going to win a lot (and are likely to trade away some veterans once we get closer to the trade deadline).
29. Hornets (1-3, LW 30).Terry Rozier came to Charlotte because he wanted the ball in his hands and a chance to show what he can do and… meh. So far i.e. is averaging 13.5 points per game, 5.5 assists a night, with a PER of 12.2. If you’re looking for a bright side, coach James Borego is getting young stars PJ Washington, Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges and Devonte' Graham good run, and each of them is showing some thing in flashes.
30. Kings (0-4, LW 17). The “what happened to these guys?” surprise to start the season. Everyone’s League-Pass favorite last season is playing at a bottom 10 pace, in part because they have to keep taking the ball out from under the basket because of their league-worst defense (once you remove garbage time, like at Cleaning The Glass… leave in garbage time and they’re second worst). Sacramento has lost its games by an average of 19.5 points per game. Fans in Sactown want to see Richaun Holmes start over Dewayne Dedmon, and he’s probably earned that.
Charlotte GM Mitch Kupchak: Hornets won’t build through free agency
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Mitch Kupchak doesn’t see the Charlotte Hornets being major players in free agency as they attempt to build a winning franchise in the post-Kemba Walker era – at least not right away.
Instead, the second-year general manager said Monday he anticipates the Hornets will construct the roster through draft picks and “savvy trades” during the season, while compiling as many assets as possible.
“We will not be an active player” in free agency, Kupchak said. “I think we can build a culture here and get enough assets and have a promising enough future and really attract the kind of free agent you want to spend that kind of money on – but I don’t think you can do it right now.”
So in the meantime, the Hornets will give young players like Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Devonte Graham and even rookie PJ Washington extensive playing time this season as part of their No. 1 overall goal of player development after going 39-43 last season and losing Walker, a three-time All-Star, to the Boston Celtics.
Kupchak said that will take patience, but he and owner Michael Jordan and coach James Borrego are on the same page.
Kupchak said he won’t measure this season’s success in terms of wins and losses, but rather on how the team’s younger players continue to progress.
“Win or lose, I want our players to play with energy and our coaches to coach with energy,” Kupchak said. “As the season goes on I want to see improvement. That’s how I’m looking at the season.”
Kupchak said that concept may not be easy for Borrego.
“I am hoping he is better than he was last season,” Kupchak said with a grin. “At the beginning of the season last year he took each loss really, really hard. Hopefully this year he will be able to handle the losses a little bit better.”
Borrego has yet to name a starting lineup for Wednesday night’s home opener against the Chicago Bulls. Point guard Terry Rozier and center Cody Zeller are locks to start, but the combination of the other three remains a mystery.
That lineup could include Washington, who has impressed Kupchak with his 3-point shooting in the preseason since being selected No. 12 overall earlier this year.
Originally, the Hornets planned for the former Kentucky forward to split time between Charlotte’s G League team and the NBA to gain maximum playing experience. But Kupchak said Washington has been the team’s most impressive young player during the preseason and will likely remain in Charlotte, provided he’s seeing 15-plus minutes per game.
“He does have to play, and, based on his production of late, he will play,” Kupchak said. “… He has worked on his game and has turned himself into not only a big man that can be productive down in the paint, but in our game today he can also make 3s.”
Win or lose, Kupchak expects the Hornets to use a “fast-paced style of play.”
Hornets decline Ramon Sessions’ $6.27 million team option
Point guard Ramon Sessions’ second stint with the Charlotte Hornets will end Thursday, with the team choosing not to exercise a contract option for next season.
The Hornets project to be about $6.4 million shy of the luxury tax with 11 players. They’ll need to use some of that money to sign No. 40 pick Dwayne Bacon and round out the roster, likely with another couple minimum players. The rest should go to a backup point guard.
Will that remaining $3.3 million or so lure an upgrade over Sessions? The answer could prove the difference between Charlotte making the playoffs or not.
The 31-year-old Sessions enters unrestricted free agency with his stock down and coming off injury. He’ll probably be valued as a high-end third point guard.