It was a somewhat rusty start for Jonathan Isaac but his impact was also clear in his limited minutes. And the Orlando Magic are happy to have him back.
The Orlando Magic were in danger of flubbing the game away when Nikola Vucevic slipped and turned it over with 0.4 seconds left. The Detroit Pistons had quickly collected the ball and called timeout. They had just enough time to break the Magic’s hearts.
Coach Frank Vogel turned to his rookie, playing his first game on a NBA court since December 26 and asked him to do something simple, yet incredibly complex — deflect the ball.
The eager-eyed rookie with the wingspan for ages was bumping up against his 15-minute limit. But the Magic needed a win. And the rookie, for as green and rusty as he looked, was the team’s best chance.
Jonathan Isaac dutifully obliged. Anthony Tolliver was unable to get the ball over Jonathan Isaac’s outstretched arms and the Magic forced overtime. That is where they eventually won 115-106, mostly behind the suddenly hot shooting of Evan Fournier and their suddenly sharp and aggressive defense.
Yet even with all that, Isaac is still where Vogel turned to needing a strong defensive play. Throughout the game, Isaac is where the Magic turned for defense and for big plays time and time again.
It was just one game back — and 15:02 at that — but it was clear what a difference Isaac can make.
"“His length is legit,” Vogel said. “It’s going to be a difference maker for our basketball team for years to come. Just him being out there changes us.”"
Isaac’s first play back from the extended absence was a play that showed exactly what he could do. And still how far he has to climb to reach all that tantalizing potential.
Pistons were able to get the ball deep into the paint and dish the ball to Reggie Bullock on the weak side. Isaac slid his feet and met him hands extended to the sky — that reach making it ever more difficult to get the ball over him. It was an imposing and impressive sight.
This 19-year-old clearly had the defensive instincts to be in the right spot.
Except he jumped a bit too early. Even with his impressive length towering over the offensive player, that little bump led to a foul.
There it was all the promise from Isaac and the long way he still has to go to develop and get comfortable.
He did it again later in the second quarter. Deflecting and stealing the ball at mid-court and fighting hard to get the loose ball. He ran to the other end after corraling it and tried to break down the defense. His 12-footer was no good for his only shot of the first half.
And he did it again, seemingly flailing his arms and knocking the ball high into the air to set up a Mario Hezonja steal and lay in for two points. These plays do not show up in a traditional box score — where he scored just three points and grabbed two rebounds on 1-for-2 shooting — but they do show up in wins.
Those two deflections were small but meaningful plays.
"“I thought he did a good job for his first game back,” Nikola Vucevic said. “On the defensive end, you can see how he can impact the game on that end. He had a couple of deflections and a couple of steals. I think the offense will come as he gets into rhythm. But the defense is really where he can impact it.”"
Isaac was not going to have a huge statistical output in his first game back on a NBA floor since Dec. 26. Orlando was not asking him to do that.
It was still a successful return. One where Isaac knocked off some rust and gained confidence and showed glimpses of what he can do when he gets himself back in rhythm.
Isaac said he felt 100 percent and did not feel tired. It seemed like he could play a bit longer if the medical staff would let him. He plans to play again Saturday against the Memphis Grizzlies. For now, it seems like Isaac is well on the road to a full recovery.
But he likely will still have a minutes restriction for a little while longer.
Still, in those 15 minutes, it is clear the impact he can make. And he is only going to grow more comfortable.
"“Tonight was amazing,” Isaac said. “Just our team chemistry and how hard everyone played. Guys just really wanted to win. I have butterflies every game, but they started to go away as the game went on.”"
And for Isaac, the most important thing was to get the win. He said that is what made his return a success.
There are still some things to work out. He has to get his timing back especially on offense. He was not especially assertive offensively and his one good look coming off a steal in mid-court was no good. A shot Vogel said Isaac rushed.
His lone make was probably a poor choice. A contested 3-pointer in the corner that Isaac even admitted he decided to shoot when he received the ball regardless of the defense. He made it for good measure in a big moment in the game.
Isaac was not going to be perfect in his first game back. Far from it. He still has a lot of work to do. Slowly the Magic will add on responsibility and more minutes onto him.
He certainly seems capable.
"“[He played] really well,” Vogel said. “He was a step late on a couple defensive plays. But he really got his hands on a lot of balls and changed a lot of plays on the defensive end. I was very pleased with how he played.”"
His first game back with the Orlando Magic worked much the same as his first game back with the Lakeland Magic. He made a clear immediate impact defensively. That is what the Magic always expected from him.
Isaac’s rookie year has clearly not been what he or anyone expected. The Magic are now just trying to get the most of it and get him experience so he can continue to grow.
This first step back was nothing short of a success.