Jonathan Isaac straddling the Orlando Magic’s present and future

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 06: Los Angeles Clippers Guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) shoots over Orlando Magic Forward Jonathan Isaac (1) during a NBA game between the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Clippers on January 6, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 06: Los Angeles Clippers Guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) shoots over Orlando Magic Forward Jonathan Isaac (1) during a NBA game between the Orlando Magic and the Los Angeles Clippers on January 6, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

Jonathan Isaac is a big part of the Orlando Magic’s future and his potential is evident. But his present has been inconsistent as anything else.

When Jonathan Isaac has the spark, it is something to behold.

He can shut down some of the best players in the league on the perimeter, using otherworldly length and technique to make up for momentary mistakes and make things hard. His emphatic block of a Joel Embiid block attempt might be the highlight of the 2018 calendar year.

Jonathan Isaac is humble and determined, two traits necessary in a good defender. And coach Steve Clifford has praised his willingness to learn and understand defensive positioning that older players sometimes struggle with.

On the other hand, he is a player with a still-developing jump shot, an inconsistent 3-point shot and not much of an offensive game to speak of.

Orlando undoubtedly knows how important Isaac is to the franchise’s future. But the team also must get the most out of him for this year and the immediate goal of the team’s Playoff race.

It is proving a trickier balance.

If there is a place where Isaac can make an immediate impact, it is on this defensive end. His offense still needs a lot of work. But it is easy to see when he has the spark what he can do. When he is in rhythm, his jumper is smooth and unguardable. His unselfishness on that end stands out too. He rarely forces anything, understanding his role and when to pick his spots.

When that spark is not there, it is easy to see he is still more or less a rookie going through the NBA for the first time. He is a 21-year-old still growing into his body and having to play against stronger players.

In his jumper, he can seem like he does not have the timing down right. Some of his misses are  . . . not good — like the 3-pointer from the corner in Sunday’s 106-96 loss to the LA Clippers that caromed off the top of the backboard. Hardly the kind of shot that inspires confidence.

In those moments, it is easy to see the confidence leave this young player. The indecision of the unknown reaching him and affecting everything he does. His decisions become slower and more labored. And in this league that costs the team everything.

Isaac’s potential is undeniable. He still has not had any breakout scoring outbursts, but he has had plenty of effect on games and has gained both Frank Vogel and Steve Clifford’s trust enough to be a full-time starter. The physical potential meets his skill at least on defense, and that is always endearing to a coach.

But so too is how far Isaac has to go to reach that potential.

In one possession Sunday, Danilo Gallinari essentially ignored Jonathan Isaac at the top of the key. He might as well have not been there. Defenses will quickly adjust and just dare Isaac to shoot.

The Magic made the right play. They got the ball out of the double team to Isaac at the top of the key. He paused, allowing Gallinari enough time to recover. Isaac, trying to find a rhythm, took a dribble inside the 3-point line and tried a mid-range jumper instead.

It went no good. Isaac scored just two points on 1-for-7 shooting. He missed all four of his 3-point shots. But it was this moment that mattered more.

It is not so important that Isaac makes or misses shots. It is more important he plays confidently. Without that, the Magic will not see the growth they need to see from him for the long-term or the production they need in the short-term.

He has usually been good at this. But it was clear Sunday that he was hesitating too much as the misses piled up.

This is the tricky space that Isaac exists in for the moment. He is a player with immense potential that needs the room to grow. But he is also an important cog in a team trying to make the Playoffs.

There is a lot to manage with Isaac and his growth and development. It all has to happen within the context of the current team and its goals. And that story is much more complicated.

Isaac is averaging just 8.3 points per game and 4.8 rebounds per game. He is shooting 41.8 percent from the floor but just 29.9 percent from beyond the arc. He is also averaging 1.2 blocks per game and a +1.7 defensive box plus-minus.

That is down from last year’s +3.1 defensive box plus-minus. Last year too, the team posted a stellar defensive rating when Isaac was on the floor. This year, though, the Magic have a 108.4 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. Orlando is only worse defensively with Mohamed Bamba on the floor.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Isaac’s sophomore season has been full of inconsistencies. In essence, it is his rookie year in many ways after he played in only 27 games last season. This is his first true run through the NBA. And he has a lot to figure out.

Even in Summer League, while he showed plenty of promise, it was clear his offensive game was still a work in progress and pretty rudimentary.

The Magic, because he is so important, will remain patient with him. They knew when they drafted him that he was a long-term project to develop. His dividends would not pay off immediately.

But now they also find themselves in a situation where they need Isaac in the short-term. Orlando is in the thick of the Playoff hunt and is starting the young player. The moments where it seems like he doubts himself or his ability are moments where opponents can exploit him.

The future can wait. Isaac has to deliver something now. And that is tough to ask any young player to do. He still has a lot to learn about the league. That may be where his doubt and inconsistency come in.

With Isaac struggling from the floor, the question may come whether the team should change the lineup. Clifford dismissed that notion after Sunday’s loss, citing the lineup’s strong net rating among heavy-usage lineups.

The franchise certainly still has faith in Isaac, as they should. He has shown when he is at his best he can deliver.

Next. Grades: LA Clippers 106, Orlando Magic 96. dark

But that has remained as elusive as the team’s overall consistency.