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):
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.”