The decision to select Jonathan Isaac was a clear indication the Orlando Magic’s new front office is not worried about working with the current roster and is adopting a long-term approach.
Jonathan Isaac was widely projected to go to the Orlando Magic. The pick was not a complete shock. Still, it was a clear statement from the new brass in Orlando they are ready to start from square one.
President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman and general manager John Hammond could have drafted a player that fit better with the current team. Dennis Smith, Malik Monk, Donovan Mitchell and even Lauri Markkanen, to name a few, were all still on the board. Each would have filled specific holes and not impeded upon the strengths, weaknesses and minutes of the team’s best player, Aaron Gordon. They could have patched up the backcourt and improved the team’s 3-point shooting.
Isaac, though, was arguably the best player on the board. So the pick was not overly controversial.
But at first glance, he and Gordon are not a seamless fit. In the long term, both are best as power forwards, and neither player is particularly adept at running the pick-and-roll, shooting or handling the ball just yet.
The Florida State Seminoles alum needs experience and weight before he can play most of his minutes as a NBA four. The two can coexist at the beginning. But the 2018 Magic clearly needed shooting and spacing. Isaac will not immediately provide that.
That does not make him a bad pick. Expect Weltman’s larger vision to include building around Isaac.
Shortly after making the selection, the Magic traded two of their four 2017 picks. The Philadelphia 76ers gave them a future pick from the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for the 25th pick. And the Memphis Grizzlies gave a future second for the 35th.
That left Orlando with just two picks in 2017 – Jonathan Isaac and Wesley Iwundu, a wing player also with impressive length, athleticism and defensive upside – and more picks in a few years.
Turning four 2017 draft picks into future picks and two players with high upside and no obvious fit with whatever core the Magic currently have is a clear message the new front office is ready for a lengthy rebuilding process. They view the team almost as a blank slate that will need time to build back into contention.
Thrusting four rookies into the fray simultaneously appealed less to Weltman and Hammond than did drafting just two right now and having the rest come later. That will allow them to patiently assess the team in 2018 and make calculated decisions in the next few years instead of all at once.
Taking such an approach is only possible with job security.
Rob Hennigan did not have that as his tenure expired. Weltman and Hammond signed for five years, so they have reason to believe they can see this process through. And certainly, they sold Magic CEO Alex Martins on it when they were hired. They can feel good about taking the process one step at a time without hastily trying to jumpstart it, as Hennigan did to his detriment at the end.
They can afford to see the current team as a blank slate because they have enough time to evaluate and find replacements for its main pieces. If they decide to keep its main pieces around, they can do that too.
Isaac is the perfect player for a blank slate.
He was 6-foot-2 his freshman year of high school. Now, he is 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He has not yet scratched the surface of what he can do with his incredible physical tools because they are still relatively new.
Because of that, there are so many routes he can take to becoming a good NBA player – so many types of players into which he can develop. He could turn into something the league has never seen before.
His sheer size will give him a chance to play and defend any frontcourt position – including center. His speed and skill will allow him to play like a guard. To expect him to excel at all five positions throughout his career would be ridiculous as he still is not proven shooter or pick-and-roll ball handler, but he could end up being just about anything.
Calling the Orlando Magic a “blank canvas” would be a disservice to Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Terrence Ross, Evan Fournier, Nikola Vucevic and the rest. It is just that no one really knows who among them will end up fitting alongside a player like Isaac long-term.
Gordon especially seems to overlap with Isaac’s strengths and weaknesses, although they could be a daunting defensive tandem.
A team just does not make these moves if it expects its best players to be around long term. A team does not make these moves if it expects the 2017 Draft to supplement or complement those players and give them a helping hand. And a team does not make these moves if it is not planning to make more small moves in the next few years.
Hammond said the 2018 season will be one for evaluation. Many fans are understandably not happy about that. But, if nothing else, the lesson of 2017 (and of many other botched rebuilds) was that patience is still a virtue.
He and Weltman have taken the first steps of a new process. And those steps – spreading assets across several years and drafting players that could take time to evaluate and develop properly – indicate they have taken that lesson to heart.
Magic fans might not have a winning season in 2018. Isaac might not look as good as Dennis Smith or Malik Monk will. That will not mean the organization has taken a step back. This is just what first steps look like.
There is still plenty to be excited about. Sixers fans know these emotions all too well. Sometimes watching good, young players develop and discover their own talents is one of the biggest joys of being a basketball fan.
If enduring more rebuilding does not sound appealing, try to take heart in that.