Jonathan Isaac creating defensive spark for lowly Orlando Magic

Jonathan Isaac has played only three games. But his defensive impact is already obvious. Even showing up statistically. It will be hard to keep him down.

Utah Jazz
Orlando Magic

Coach Frank Vogel could only chuckle as the assembled media in Salt Lake City asked him about rookie Jonathan Isaac once again. His defensive impact from the moment he checked into the game was immediate… again. The rookie, out for all but three games from Nov. 11 until March 2, was finally getting a chance to show his wares.

Vogel had been telling everyone all along this is what he would do. His defense was showing up in practices. He just was not able to make it on the floor.

Isaac took that show on the road making a big defensive impact immediately. He is forcing his way into more playing time because things are so much different with him on the floor.

He changed a shot on one of his first defensive possessions. Isaac forced the ball off Royce O’Neale on another play. He blocked Donovan Mitchell on a layup a bit later. There was a charge and another block. All these little plays that add up.

Vogel trusted Isaac to guard the streaking Joe Ingles in the second half, starting the rookie over Jonathon Simmons to try to cut into a 10-point deficit. Faith and trust in this rookie has grown tremendously in just three games.

Ingles scored 16 points and dished out seven assists in the first half, helping Utah outscore Orlando and take control of the game in the second quarter. He had just two points and one assist in the second half. Unable to get himself free for his 3-point shot, the Jazz never really pulled away.

Orlando never really made a run either. Utah’s defense was still stifling. But the Magic gave themselves a chance.

No one can ever peg a defensive effort on a single player. Defense is still a team thing. And Vogel still was not happy with his team’s defense. The Jazz scored only 94 points. But accounting for their slow pace, they scored 103.4 points per 100 possessions.

For an Orlando team that is giving up 108.8 points per 100 possessions, that is quite a difference. That is the 28th best defense in the league. A 103.4 defensive rating would make a team the sixth best defense in the league this year.

Since Isaac returned to the lineup, Orlando has given up just 101.4 points per 100 possessions. And on an on-court basis, the Magic have a 90.2 defensive rating since his return — the best mark on the team.

For the year, the Magic have a 100.0 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. The best on the team too.

All those statistics come with a major small sample size warning. Three games are not enough to make any sweeping conclusions. Teams will slowly begin to scout Isaac and find the areas he is uncomfortable and begin exploiting some weaknesses.

On-court defensive ratings certainly suggest some correlation, but it is not necessarily causation. Isaac is often on the floor at the same time as the defensive-minded Bismack Biyombo and going up against reserve players. Those are typically much weaker.

In the first half of the third quarter, while Isaac played with the starters, the Jazz scored 11 points and posted a 93.5 offensive rating. It seems in that limited sample things began to translate.

The plays Isaac is making though certainly stand out. And Vogel seems eager to play Isaac more and more. He finished the game for the Magic too as they tried to make a final push. The offense just never came.

And that has been the biggest struggle for Isaac so far.

Monday night, Isaac missed all five of his shot. He has not found his legs or his footing offensively. The shots are not falling for him.

The Magic do not seem overly worried by this. The team is not running much offensive for Isaac. Vogel said he likes Isaac’s basketball sense and chalks up any struggles to conditioning, speed and timing. At some point, that part of his game will have to come into line. It certainly will be a big part of his summer workout plans.

That impact defensively is just too great to ignore. It is not just the numbers. It is truly those big plays and the shots he challenged.

The Magic posted an article claiming Isaac contested every shot against him in Saturday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies. It is an impressive feat. But the NBA’s defensive tracking data is still a bit imperfect. It is hard to trust those defensive statistics.

Then again, few guys could bite on a pump fake on a game-tying 3-pointer, recover and block the shot all in time. Or defend the most dynamic rookie in the league, match him stride for stride and block his layup attempt.

Or block a shot, grab a rebound over Rudy Gobert and start a fast break that ends in an Aaron Gordon dunk.

Isaac is doing all those things. And doing them fairly early in his career. His defensive instincts and comfort are strange for a rookie. Defense is usually the thing players need to catch up on. Even if they are good at defense already.

And lifting up an entire team’s defense in the process.

The Magic still suffered a frustrating defeat. The Jazz’s own strong defense seemed to stymie the Magic, keeping them out of the paint with Gobert and forcing them into stagnation with their length. Orlando was trying too hard to go at it alone and rescue the team. It is hard to win games when Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon shot a combined 8 for 36.

The team’s defense is proving to be a bright spot. A chance for the Magic to build some identity and give themselves a chance to win. Or at least to let their rookie flourish.

Isaac has lifted this team up through his play. Even in a small sample size. And that in itself is promising.