Terrence Ross

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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.”

Do you believe in Magic? They sure do

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Magic just had their best season in seven years. Orlando was buzzing. Management poured more than $160 million into keeping the roster intact.

All for a 42-40 team that lost 4-1 in the first round.

The Magic should feel good about their breakthrough season. They ended the longest playoff drought in franchise history.

But this summer showed major long-term commitment to a group that has proven capable of just moderate winning and lacks obvious upside.

The major investments: Re-signing Nikola Vucevic (four years, $100 million) and Terrence Ross (four years, $54 million). Vucevic was an All-Star last season, and Vucevic finished fifth in Sixth Man of the Year voting. They’re good players.

But Vucevic didn’t become an All-Star until his eighth season. Most players who make their first All-Star game so late in their career don’t return. He also plays center, where there’s a surplus of capable players. That’s an expensive price for his age-29-through-31 seasons.

Likewise, Ross will turn 29 next season. He’s a streaky scorer who flourished in a bigger role last season. I’m just not convinced he’ll keep it up to justify his price tag.

At least Orlando structured the contracts well. Like Aaron Gordon‘s terms signed the year before, Vucevic’s salaries declines throughout his deal. Ross’ increases in the second year then declines. That should help the players hold more value later.

In the meantime, the Magic want to keep winning now. They’re the only Eastern Conference playoff team to return every starter.

They also re-signed key backups Khem Birch (two years, $6 million) and Michael Carter-Williams (minimum) for reasonable value. That continuity could make the difference next season. Orlando really took off after Birch and Carter-Williams joined the rotation last season.

The Magic signed Al-Farouq Aminu (three years, $29,162,700) to add depth. In a vacuum, I like that move. In Orlando, Aminu is another power forward on a team overloaded with bigs.

It’s already difficult enough to find proper opportunities for Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac. Aminu only complicates matters. All three can play both forward spots. Maybe the Magic envision always having two interchangeable forwards on the floor, allowing them to maintain a style. But all three are better at power forward. There were probably better ways to allocate resources.

Signing Aminu with the mid-level exception necessitated stretching Timofey Mozgov to stay out of the luxury tax. That’s a not-small $5,573,334 cap hit each of the next three seasons.

Orlando drafted yet another power in the first round, Chuma Okeke at No. 16. But considering Okeke tore his ACL in March, the Magic could look quite different by the time he’s ready to contribute. They might get a long runway with him, as he has yet to sign his rookie-scale contract and could spend next season on a minor-league deal. Six years of team control, up from the usual five for a first-round pick, could matter significantly.

There are paths for Orlando to reach the next level – Gordon becoming a star, Isaac breaking out, Mohamed Bamba getting on track after a disappointing rookie year, Okeke getting healthy and proving correct the advanced models that rated him as a top prospect, Markelle Fultz rediscovering his form. None seem like great bets, especially because it might take a couple hits to propel this forward.

There’s a decent chance this summer’s spending works out. Winning increases the value of everyone involved. It creates flexibility not afforded to losing teams. And it’s just fun while it’s happening.

But I think it’s slightly more likely Orlando regrets locking into these players at those prices – that the Magic don’t win enough then head right back to the wrong side of mediocre while facing new long-term costs.

Offseason grade: C-

Lakers move fast to bring back Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee

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Kawhi Leonard taking his time to come to a decision — it was less than six days, remember LeBron’s “The Decision” was July 8, but free agency moved a lot faster this year — hurt the Lakers more than any other of the teams in the mix for Leonard.

The Lakers had two top-seven NBA stars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but now rather than add a third star the Lakers were scrambling early Saturday morning to round out their roster. A lot of the players they might have targeted — J.J. Redick, Trevor Ariza, Terrence Ross, even bringing back D'Angelo Russell, just to name a few — were off the table.

The Lakers moved fast to get Danny Green but paid a lot to get him at two-years, $30 million. Then they moved to bring back Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and JaVale McGee, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Last season McGee started 62 games for the Lakers and averaged 12 points and 7.5 rebounds a game, with an efficient True Shooting percentage of 63.4. While Davis is far and away the best center on the Laker roster, he prefers to play as a four next to a more traditional five, which means McGee likely starts at center this season for the Lakers. (As a side note, this is where the Ivica Zubac trade last season hurts the Lakers even more.)

Caldwell-Pope averaged 11.4 points per game and shot 34.7 percent from three, plus he played solid defense. He was overpaid and certainly was brought in originally (two seasons ago) in part because he was a Rich Paul client (the agent of LeBron and Davis), but he has played solidly for them. This contract is at a reasonable rate, close to the league average.

The Lakers made decent moves to start rounding out their roster without Leonard, as much as could be expected with where the market stood on July 6. However, the fits are not going to be ideal at this point and it’s going to take adjusting throughout the season as well (both with trades and grabbing guys off waivers from other teams who fit).

 

Report: Terrence Ross signs four-year, $54 million deal to return to Magic

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Terrence Ross is heading back to the Orlando Magic.

As free agency opened on Sunday afternoon, Ross was reported to have signed a new four-year, $54 million deal with his current team. It was the big pay day that the Portland native has been searching for, and one that came after a great year for Ross.

Ross, 28, was an excellent spot-up shooter and pick-and-roll ball-handler for Orlando last year. He’s still an average defender, but he’s reasonable on that end of the floor and his contract isn’t exorbitant.

Via Twitter:

Orlando made the playoffs in the Eastern Conference last season, and it looks like they want to keep some of their core players. Ross was a vital wing for the Magic, and his new contract comes on the heels of a report that Nikola Vucevic will also be returning to Central Florida.

Ross’s deal puts the Magic in a bit of a sticky cap situation for this year, but moving forward the team should have some open space over the next two seasons to add some improvement around their core.

Clippers’ Lou Williams won second-straight, third overall Sixth Man of Year Award

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The Clippers bench play this season was the reason they made the playoffs (and pushed the Warriors to six games in the first round). Montrezl Harrell blossomed into his own as part of that.

However, it was Lou Williams who made it all work, which is why he won his second straight (and third overall) Sixth Man of the Year Award on Monday night. He garnered 96 of the 100 first-place votes.

Williams spoke from the heart about second chances and his faith in himself.

“Four years ago, I thought I was done, like I was coming to the end of my career,” Williams said.

Williams averaged 20 points a game and he is still one of the better bucket getters in the NBA, an isolation master. What he did better this year, however, was playmaking, dishing out 5.4 assists per game. His teammate Montrezl Harrell — the NBA’s best energy big off the bench last season who finished third in the Sixth Man voting — was the biggest beneficiary of those passes.

Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis came in second in the voting, with Spencer Dinwiddie of the Nets third and Terrence Ross of Orlando fifth. Here is the voting breakdown.