For every young player struggling to actualize an imposing pre-draft expectation, there are occasional spurts of brilliance, just enough to keep the believers going without really creating a consistent impact. Nearly two seasons into the Jonathan Isaac experience, that’s the best way to describe his journey.
When the Orlando Magic drafted Isaac sixth overall in 2017, he was touted as a spindly, fluid athlete with All-Defensive Team upside, the silhouette of a serviceable 3-point shot and off-the-dribble shooting package. At 19 years of age sporting a string-bean frame, Isaac’s prime as a juiced-up 3-and-D forward would always have to wait.
While fewer than 80 career games is far too early to abandon all hope, buying into Isaac’s offensive game is growing increasingly difficult. As a rookie, he finished 514th (minus-3.86) among 521 players in ESPN’s Offensive Real Plus-Minus. This season, he’s currently 448th (minus-2.65) out of 482. That is progress, but minimal at best.
To put it succinctly, Isaac rarely does anything positive on offense. He’s a career 29.9 percent 3-point shooter with a sub-50 percent true shooting percentage. Defenses slink way off to cloud drives or post-ups. It’s not uncommon to see Isaac stationed on the perimeter receiving the invisible man treatment:
Pick a freeze frame and you’re unlikely to find a defender anywhere near him, meaning his teammates are often playing 4-on-5. Marcus Morris is guarding Isaac but completely ignores him, opting to chill with his heels pressed on the restricted circle:
Exacerbating this issue is his nasty habit of skirting open 3s. He’ll catch a pass primed for a good look and swing it down the line, waltz into a long 2 or try to make a post entry. A poor shooting wing — 48 percent of his minutes have come at small forward this year after just 2 percent last season — who’s reluctant to fire unless wide open is a floor-shrinking player capable of derailing offenses.
Playing him at the 4 is a better way to mitigate his shooting concerns but Isaac isn’t a springy pick-and-roll partner who snares lobs or lingers in the dunker’s spot to posterize people. Also lacking the requisite brawn to bang in the post, he’s left struggling to contribute offensively.
Many will point to his career 81.5 percent mark at the free-throw line as long-term optimism for his outside shot. But Isaac seems far more comfortable from mid-range than deep. Ideally, this is a strength-based divide correctable over time as he beefs up. Note how smoothly he steps into the pull-up jumper before coiling like a spring on the 3-point attempt:
Isaac excels in pockets of space, particularly on the break or plunging to the rim as a cutter. Near-7-footers who genuinely glide in the open court — not just among bigs but all players — and can put the ball on the floor remain rarities. Isaac is one of them. Every once in a while, he’ll showcase his handle, coordination and length with plays like these:
Intermittently, Isaac wiggles passes into small windows. He is a complementary distributor at the elbows, best suited to funnel actions through from time to time. There is scant on-the-move passing or high-level reads — almost always executing feeds on premeditated actions — but within him rests some creation upside, a path to extract value outside of scoring or screening.
For the Magic to maximize Isaac’s offensive utility, they must land a primary initiator to pry open those pockets for him — someone who teeters defenses out of sync with self-creation and playmaking. Too frequently, he is a glaring, alarming negative in the half-court. A lead guard won’t pacify all those issues but a manipulative facilitator and fast-break buddy is a promising foundation.
Statistically, Isaac is displaying signs of growth. His true shooting is up from 46.5 percent to 51 percent. His 3-point and free-throw rates have swelled from .317 and .172 to .377 and .252. His assist-to-turnover ratio is no longer negative. It was always going to be a project. These numbers are all evidence of an upward trend in important areas. Is the development curve sharp enough, though?
The sporadic offensive flashes remain intriguing but they bubble on defense with regularity. Isaac looks the part of a long, switchy monster: long arms, quick feet, natural instincts and an appreciation for chaos. Between his first two seasons, the 21-year-old is averaging 1.4 steals and 1.7 blocks per 36 minutes, deploying a 7-foot-1 wingspan to swarm opponents.
Still patching up his footwork and penchant for getting down in a stance — learning to rely less on physical gifts — will keep spry, shifty guards from burning him. Strand him on an island against larger, relatively like-sized ball-handlers and he creates tantalizing plays, the kind his ardent supporters point to as rationale for their faith. Near the bucket, It’s almost as if some guys forget just how gangly and physically talented he is:
The second-year big is a defensive playmaker, driven by a craving to turn teams over. He chomps at the bit to rotate for help-side rejections and sniffs out impact plays like a bear hunting salmon.
What is, perhaps, most impressive, though, are his disciplined closeouts, highlighted in some of the sequences above. Most young guys are overeager on those. They zoom by and feint contesting the shot with a customary hand in the air. Not Isaac. He is calm and controlled, steadying himself to stay in front. That 7-foot-1 wingspan is a luxury here, enabling him to play a little further off than most forwards tracking shooters.
To emerge as a switch-all defender, Isaac needs to bulk up without sacrificing speed or quickness. He’s also an ever-bouncy shot-blocker, sometimes to a fault. But the outline of an elite stopper is beginning to fill in — even if the offense continues to trail well behind.
The Magic are not calling for an offensive savant, they just need a pulse ringing out more than once a night. Otherwise, it’s hard to exist in the league. Isaac is a good defender but, much like his enthusiasts currently surviving off footage of blocks and steals, those plays can’t fuel him forever. Eventually, the offense must crystallize.
*All stats current through Jan. 28