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.”
Three Things to Know: Markelle Fultz is making plays, getting buckets for Orlando
Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Don’t look now, but Markelle Fultz is making plays, getting buckets for Orlando. The Washington Wizards were going to dare Markelle Fultz to use that long-broken jumper.
Midway through the first quarter, Nikola Vucevic brought the ball out to the left wing above the arc, handed the ball to Fultz and set a pick, but Washington defender Isaiah Thomas instantly backed a couple of steps off. Fultz set his feet and drained a three. One minute later, almost the exact same scenario played out in an early shot clock opportunity. After that, Wizards’ defenders started to come out and contest Fultz from beyond the arc, and that opened lanes for what Fultz really wants to do, drive to the rim. He was in attack mode for the rest of the night.
Fultz had his best NBA game Sunday — scoring a career-high 19 points on 8-of-10 shooting — capped off by this steal and slam to seal the win.
Fultz is playing solid, respectable ball for Orlando — and he’s improving seemingly game to game. On the season he is averaging 10.5 points a night on 48.6 percent shooting (21.4 percent from three), plus 3.1 assists and 2.2 rebounds.
Not All-Star numbers, not the numbers teams hope for from No. 1 overall picks. However, for Fultz this is a marked improvement from the player with a combination of an injury and a clear mental block — call it a case of the yips if you want — we saw the first two seasons. Fultz was the top pick of the 76ers back in 2017 (they traded with Boston to move up to get him), but by the start of training camp had seemingly just lost the ability to shoot the basketball. He played only 14 games that season. During his second season he was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome (a pinching of the blood vessels and/or nerves around the collarbone), and the Sixers threw in the towel and traded Fultz to Orlando. Fultz never got on the court the second half of last season.
This season, out of the spotlight and pressure of being on a contender in a major market, Fultz has started to find his game again. He talked about it after his play on Sunday.
“I never lost confidence. I’m just feeling better. I took the time this summer to rehab and get everything right physically. Each game out there, I’m feeling more and more better. It’s showing in my play and I’m just going to keep going.”
Fultz’s jumper still has a lower release and he pushes it more than you’d like, it’s not a form dad’s would have their children mimic. But, it’s going in more and more. Fultz is looking comfortable when he drives, and his comfort level seems to be growing every time he steps on the court. The Magic like what they see (they should, considering they picked up is $12.4 million option for next season) and Fultz has moved into the starting lineup.
It’s all good signs for someone who a lot of people in the media and around the league are rooting for — and that includes fellow Washington alumnus Thomas, who watched the improved Fultz first-hand on Sunday.
That shot ended Boston’s 10-game win streak on a night they just were not as sharp as they had been. Boston had six players in double digits led by Jaylen Brown’s 18, but this was a game where they missed Gordon Hayward’s playmaking and scoring. With the game on the line, it was Smart — who was 2-of-15 shooting up to that point — forced to drive and take the shot.
Also, Sacramento had Buddy Hield and he seemingly could not miss — he had 35 points, including seven three-pointers.
Don’t look now, but after an ugly start to the season the Kings are 5-2 in November, and the two losses were to the Raptors and Lakers by a combined 6 points. Luke Walton’s team is figuring it out.
3) Kobe Bryant shows up to Staples Center, Lakers show out and roll Hawks. The Lakers are the best team in the NBA to start the season and the stars were out Sunday night to watch them: Kevin Hart, Chance the Rapper, and…
Oh, Kobe Bryant.
He was getting a lot of love from the Lakers’ stars.
Part of the draw for all those stars was Trae Young, who has been putting on a show this season and had 31 against the Lakers, plus handed out seven dimes.
But this was no contest, with the Lakers up 12 after one quarter and then 28 at the half. LeBron had 33 points, 12 assists, and continues to play at an MVP level no matter who is in the house. Kyle Kuzma had a solid 17 off the bench. Los Angeles is now 10-2 on the season and look like the force of nature Lakers nation had hoped for before the season.
Markelle Fultz’s steal, slam secures Orlando win against Washington (VIDEO)
Nikola Vucevic had 30 points and 17 rebounds and Evan Fournier added 25 points and nine assists, but the Magic nearly squandered an 18-point fourth quarter lead before Fultz stopped Washington’s rally.
Fultz made all six shots from the field in the first half, including a pair of 3-pointers, and finished 8 for 10 from the field. However, it was his defensive play that decided the game.
With Orlando leading 119-116, Fultz stole a pass and was fouled as he dunked the ball with 36.1 seconds left. His free throw finished the 3-point play and gave Orlando a six-point cushion that stood up for the team’s fourth win in its last five games.
“That was definitely fun,” said Fultz, who was drafted No. 1 by Philadelphia 76ers in 2017 before being traded to Orlando midway through last season. “You live for moments like that when the game is on the line and you’re out competing to see what everybody is made of. I love it that I got a chance to make a big-time play and I finished it off.”
Orlando needed it to withstand a couple of fourth-quarter rallies by Washington and its 3-point shooting team. The Wizards made 10 of 15 3-pointers in the final period and scored 44 points, but couldn’t play enough defense to overtake Orlando.
Bradley Beal scored 34 points and had eight assists for Washington, which absorbed its fourth loss in five games. The Wizards got 21 points from C.J. Miles and 15 from Davis Bertans.
“We are 10 games in (to the season) now so we have to dial back the amount of excuses we have,” Beal said. “We compete hard enough to win every game. We are top five on offense, so we know that’s not the problem. We just have to get stops.”
NBA Power Rankings: Red-hot Boston climbs up into top spot
Three weeks and around 10 games into the season, we are starting to figure out what is real and what is not — and how injuries are going to blow all that up. A lot of key players around the league are out now, but go ahead and blame Kawhi Leonard for sitting out and trying to avoid getting injured.
1. Celtics (8-1, Last week No. 6). Winners of eight in a row, making the timing of Gordon Hayward’s fractured hand feels like a punch to the gut. He was looking close to his vintage, All-Star self again averaging 18.9 points per game, shooting 43.3 percent from three, pulling down 7.1 rebounds and dishing out 4.1 assists. Hayward is in three of the Celtics’ four most-used lineups, and when paired with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown the Celtics are +27.2 points per 100 possessions. The silver lining is he is only out six weeks (at a point in the season it doesn’t crush them).
According to the Celtics: Gordon Hayward has been diagnosed with a left hand fracture. Here's the play where it happened: pic.twitter.com/Vwd3FpJsfS
2. Lakers (8-2, LW 1). Did anyone really say LeBron James was washed? No doubt his game took a step back last season — his groin injury playing a big role in that — but washed? He was third-team All-NBA. LeBron apparently talked himself into using a straw man argument for motivation — and it worked. He is playing at an MVP level so far this season. He seems much more comfortable pushing the ball in transition this season and attacking the rim. When asked how he has held off Father Time, LeBron had a great answer: “Wine. It ages well.”
3. Bucks (7-3, LW 4). He may not have taken a step forward this season as hoped, but Khris Middleton was playing like his All-Star self of a season ago — 18.5 points per game, shooting 39.3 percent from three, finishing well at the rim, and the Bucks offense was 3.3 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. Now they are without him for 3-4 weeks with a thigh bruise. The Bucks have won 4-of-6 in a road heavy portion of the schedule, and after being at home against the Bulls on Thursday it’s back out on the road for three more.
4. Clippers (7-3, LW 3). When Kawhi Leonard is on the court this season, Los Angeles is +24.3 points per 100 possessions better. That is exactly why he is getting load management nights now — to prevent and avoid injuries down the line, so he can be on the court in the games that matter. Starting Thursday he will be joined by Paul George, who is expected to make his debut on the road in New Orleans. Then we get to witness the fire power of this fully armed and operational Death Star.
5. Heat (7-3, LW 7). Rookie Kendrick Nunn has come back to earth a little after his hot start, defenses started focusing on him and blitzing him a lot more. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guy happier with his situation: “Everything is good — Miami, the organization, the culture, where I live… It’s a lot warmer (than where he grew up in Chicago), I don’t like the cold.” Nunn, however, likely will be back in Chicago in February — All-Star weekend, for the Rising Stars Game on Friday night with teams of rookies and second-year guys. “I’m looking forward to that for sure, just for a couple days though,” Nunn told NBC Sports.
6. Raptors (7-3, LW 8). Nick Nurse didn’t lean much on his bench until injuries to Kyle Lowry (thumb) and Serge Ibaka (ankle) forced him to, but he has been rewarded. Chris Boucher has been a defensive force, blocking shots by LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was hitting critical shots against the Lakers. The Raptors have started 2-1 on a five-game road trip, with the only loss being on the second night of a back-to-back against the Clippers (who had a rested Kawhi Leonard).
7. Jazz (8-3, LW 9). Utah’s offense has looked better the past couple of weeks (up 2.1 points per 100 possessions over their season average, via Cleaning the Glass), but it is still the Utah defense that has them winning games. Last week they won two big ones, at home against the best of the East in Philadelphia and them Milwaukee. Bojan Bogdanovic’s game-winner against the Bucks that will be one of the big shots of the season for the Jazz.
8. 76ers (7-3, LW 2). The Sixers are all about the close games. Four of Philadelphia’s seven wins have been by eight points or less. The Sixers struggled on a recent road trip going 1-3 — with all three losses by a combined 10 points — but came home and fattened up on Charlotte and Cleveland, before going back out on the road for three more. Those three losses, particularly the one in Denver, brought up the question we asked heading into the season: Who is the closer on this team? Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris combined for one bucket in the fourth quarter against Denver. They have to do better.
9. Rockets (7-3, LW 14). The Rockets have used the combination of a soft schedule (second easiest in the league so far this season) and a historically-hot James Harden to jump out to a fast start. While the Rockets defense has struggled, that has come from the bench, their preferred starting five — Russell Westbrook, Harden, Danuel House, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela — is allowing less than a point per possession when on the court together. Caplet’s off-season shoulder injury (suffered while playing for the Swiss national team) has slowed his offense.
10. Nuggets (7-3, LW 11). Mike Malone is leaning on his starters — the combination of Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, and in Jamal Murray has played the most minutes of any five-man lineup in the NBA so far this young season. Denver’s record looks better than their advanced stats because Jokic has quietly become as good a clutch shooter as we have in the league right now, and he hit two game-winners over the weekend to save the Nuggets.
11. Suns (6-4, LW 5). It’s the question a lot of people keep asking: Are the Suns for real? It sure feels like they are (they played the Lakers tough until the end Tuesday night). For one thing, this is a top 10 offense and the defense is respectable (middle of the pack). Then there are games like Sunday, coming off a loss to Miami, where the Suns bounced back and trounced the Nets. Or, when Devin Booker scored 11 in a row in the fourth quarter recently to help beat Philly. The combination of Monty Williams as coach and Ricky Rubio at the point has Phoenix playing smart ball, the kind that is sustainable.
12. Pacers (7-4, LW 18).Malcolm Brogdon has the Pacers off to a quality start to the season, but they should be racking up wins now — all 11 of their games have been against teams currently below .500. That’s about to change with the Rockets and Bucks the next two teams up on the schedule. The Pacers sent Victor Oladipo down to the G-League for a day to get in practice, he’s still a ways away but it’s a good sign he’s getting in the work.
13. Mavericks (6-4, LW 10). The boos are about to rain down on Kristaps Porzingis as he returns to Madison Square Garden Thursday to take on the Knicks (even though, when you look at the Knicks right now, do you blame him for wanting out?). Dallas lost to the New York at home last week despite another Luka Doncic triple-double. Porzingis has not played up to the level of his pre-injury self yet, but after nearly 20 months away from an NBA court that is to be expected. This was always going to take time.
14. Timberwolves (6-4, LW 13). It’s time to acknowledge this: Andrew Wiggins is playing the best basketball of his career. It’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows — he’s not defending all that well, he’s certainly not living up to his contract — but it’s better than we have seen him play. It remains a tail of halves: In the first half he shoots 30.3% from three and doesn’t really impact the game on either end; then in the second half he shoots 37.9% from three (50% in the fourth), he’s more engaged and attacks the rim, and he impacts games late. We’ll see if it keeps up, but so far his 21.1 PER is lightyears ahead of any other season he’s had and a sign of just how well he is going.
15. Spurs (5-5, LW 12). The San Antonio Spurs are averaging 25.2 free throw attempts per game, 11th most in the NBA. That doesn’t seem remarkable until you compare it to their history, the Spurs are not a team that draws fouls — they have been in the bottom 10 in the league in free throw attempts four of the past five years (and never were above 22 a game). San Antonio is attacking a little more, and just finding ways to win.
16. Nets (4-6, LW 17). When Jarrett Allen is on the court, Brooklyn outscores opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions. When DeAndre Jordan is on the court, the Nets get outscored by 12.8. Allen is averaging 25.5 points per game, Jordan 22.4. Jordan is making $9.9 million a season in the first-year of a four-year contract. The lesson here? It’s good to have Kyrie and KD as your friends.
17. Trail Blazers (4-7, LW 19). Tuesday night’s loss sloppy loss to a Sacramento team without D’Aaron Fox set off even more alarm bells in Portland — this team is not right. The defense is struggling and the offense isn’t bailing them out Damian Lillard is carrying this team — he dropped 60 on Brooklyn and Portland still lost the game. CJ McCollum is struggling with his shot, Hassan Whiteside is Hassan Whiteside, and guys that might help such as Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, and Jusuf Nurkic are out injured. It all just puts more pressure on GM Neil Olshay to make a trade at the deadline.
18. Thunder (4-7, LW 15). While the record isn’t what OKC had hoped, this is a very competitive team that has four losses by five points or less. Filter out garbage time (as Ben Falk does at Cleaning the Glass) and the Thunder have a net rating of -0.7 — just a little under a .500 team. Catch a couple of bounces and this team has another win or two. That said, it’s going to be tough to rack up wins in the next four games against the 76ers, Clippers, and a home-and-home against the Lakers.
19. Bulls (4-7, LW 24). There are still a lot of things wrong in Chicago, but for a night rookie Coby White was able to cover them up by making seven three pointers in the fourth quarter to lead a win over the Knicks. Pulling away in the fourth is a nice change of pace for Bulls’ fans, who have had to watch their team blow four double-digit leads that became losses already this season.
20. Cavaliers (4-6, LW 25). Ten games into the season, we can now say: The Cleveland Cavaliers are not that bad. Which is a whole lot better than most of us expected (including Cavs fans). Take garbage time out of the equation (as stats at Cleaning the Glass do) and their net rating is -0.2, which is basically a .500 team. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are showing some chemistry, veterans such as Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson are playing well (and upping their trade value), and the Cleveland offense has looked pretty good the past couple of weeks.
21. Hawks (4-6, LW 16).Trae Young has made the leap in his second season — he is playing like an All-Star. Young is making history right now — he is the first Hawks player ever to have three straight games with at least 30 points and 10 assists. Tuesday night he had 42 points, shot 8-of-11 from three (with some Stephen Curry-ranged makes), dished out 11 assists, and willed the Hawks to an impressive 125-121 win on the road in Denver.
22. Hornets (4-6, LW 20). Statistically, the Hornets may be 4-6 but they are playing over their head, with a -7.3 net rating that would suggest another loss or two. Or, look at it this way: Charlotte has trailed by at lest 10 points in every one of its games. The one bright spot has been Devonte' Graham, who is averaging 17.9 points per game and absolutely should be starting in place of Terry Rozier right now.
23. Magic (3-7, LW 23). The rumors that Orlando is interested in DeMar DeRozan make sense: Orlando’s problem is on offense where they average less than a point per possession this season (second worst in the league), and DeRozan is a “just add water and instant offense” kind of player. Orlando has dropped 5-of-6 and on Wednesday night the 76ers come to town for what could be the Markelle Fultz revenge game.
24. Kings (4-6, LW 27). The Kings feel snakebit. First Marvin Bagley III goes down injured. Then on Monday, De’Aaron Fox rolled his ankle near the end of the Kings’ practice and he will be out 3-4 weeks with what has been described as a grade 3 sprain. Fox was putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game this season as the focal point of the Kings’ offense. Look for more Cory Joseph and Yogi Farrell.
25. Pistons (4-8, LW 22). Blake Griffin has returned to the lineup and looked pretty good in his debut with 19 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. Derrick Rose could return to the lineup this week as well from his strained hamstring, and the Pistons could use his playmaking skills off the bench as they are on the road for 3-of-4.
26. Wizards (2-6, LW 21). The good news is that with Bradley Beal and impressive rookie Rui Hachimura the Wizards have been getting buckets — they have the 11th ranked offense in the league. The bad news is with those two on the floor the Wizards give up more than 122 points per 100 possessions — Washington’s defense is a mess. Thomas Bryant is not a rim-protecting backstop, and the insertion of Isaiah Thomas into the starting lineup is not a boost on that end of the court. Thomas is averaging 10 points a game with a dreadful 47.1 true shooting percentage as a starter.
27. Pelicans (2-8, LW 28).Brandon Ingram is averaging a career high 25.9 points per game. but how he’s getting those buckets has evolved since previous seasons. Ingram is getting to the rim less (just 21% of his shots, down fro 34% a season ago) but he’s not taking 30% of his shot attempts from beyond the arc and is hitting 46.9% of them. That shooting percentage is going to come down to earth some, but Ingram’s improved jumper speaks to the overall improvement in his game.
28. Grizzlies (3-7, LW 29).Ja Morant continues to put up numbers and look like a Rookie of the Year candidate, but what the Grizzlies really need is him and Jaren Jackson Jr. to find some chemistry, and that has yet to happen. When those two are on the court this season the Grizzlies score less than a point per possession and have a net rating of -11.8. Morant has 47 assists this season but only four have been to Jackson. It’s early, but the Grizzlies need this pairing to grow and work better.
29. Warriors (2-9, LW 26). Golden State rookie Eric Paschall is getting just about all he can eat in terms of touches on the shorthanded Warriors, and the result is him scoring 15.6 points per game. What’s most impressive is he is getting to the rim, with 43.5% of his shots coming in the restricted area, and he’s finishing a very good 66% of them. He’s one ray of hope for Warriors fans this season.
30. Knicks (2-9, LW 30). The Knicks signed Julius Randle this summer to bring his bully ball style in the paint to Madison Square Garden this season, but with other teams able to clog the paint because of a lack of shooting, Randle is shooting just 42.4% this season. His three-point percentage also is way off, down to 21.1% (he hit 34.4% a season ago). Things are so bad with the Knicks team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry were forced to address the media (you know James Dolan demanded it), and it feels like David Fizdale may be the scapegoat. He’s no blameless, but you can resurrect John Wooden from the dead and he couldn’t get this roster to win, it’s unbalanced and never was going to fit well.