The joy and promise of watching Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Isaac

The Orlando Magic's defense has shown some new spirit the last two outings. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
The Orlando Magic's defense has shown some new spirit the last two outings. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

The Orlando Magic have been without Jonathan Isaac since Jan. 1. It is easy to forget how he played and his impact. Game replays are giving us a reminder.

The Orlando Magic’s season seemed to come crashing down with Jonathan Isaac when he went down in a heap on Jan. 1 against the Washington Wizards. So much hope and forward momentum seemed lost.

A season that already featured far too many major injuries to starting and rotation players had taken down the Magic’s most prized and hopeful young player.

The season would march on. There would be no waiting for Jonathan Isaac to come back. The games would keep going and the team would have to find a way. They would have to push forward.

The progress from their budding young star would get put on hold. The excitement for what his season was becoming and where Isaac might have ended up as he improved throughout the course of the year. Let alone the jump start that might have given him for the offseason — an offseason that already looks to be much shorter than it might otherwise be.

A players’ absence also makes it easy to forget just how good a player was and just what his contribution was. Teams so easily adapt — they have to — and push forward. The games come down so fast that there is not much time to dwell on the past.

The video clips pile up and the absent player is not there adding to the memory banks. When players eventually do return, it is like a breath of fresh air. Just seeing them again and getting into rhythm leads to everyone saying, “Oh yeah, I forgot exactly what he adds.”

That is even more for players like Isaac who figure so important to the team’s every-game operations. Yes, the team pushed on without him. But they could have been even better with Isaac out there.

Especially with Isaac’s clear growth and confidence on the floor.

The NBA’s hiatus has given Magic fans a chance to take a breath and see the reminder of how good Isaac was this year. Getting the chance to watch old games from the season, gives everyone a refresh on Isaac. A reminder of the impact he can truly make and the potential that still lies inside.

Defensive Impact

Friday night, FOX Sports Florida re-aired the Orlando Magic’s Dec. 1 100-96 win over the Golden State Warriors. Isaac scored 14 points to go with 11 rebounds and five blocks.

This game had seemingly become standard for Isaac.

With sudden bursts, Isaac put his imprint on the game. Nowhere more so than with his ability to block shots while still staying down defensively. He changes how teams have to attack the Magic’s defense.

In a one-point game, Jonathan Isaac stood tall against Draymond Green, stonewalling him in the lane and then used his length to block his shot. That started a fast break that finished with Markelle Fultz following the play and hitting the go-ahead layup.

Orlando would not trail the rest of the game.

Isaac’s game is still very much in development. He built his reputation on little moments of potential that slowly build up and combine to create a bigger whole.

He was averaging a career-high 12.0 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game and 2.4 blocks per game. He was on pace to lead the league in “stocks,” adding 1.6 steals per game for good measure.

The Magic had an 106.3 defensive rating leading up to Isaac’s injury. They have had an 111.3 defensive rating since then. That is not all on Isaac. But it is hard not to imagine Isaac — the Magic’s defensive rating with Isaac on the floor is a little more than 105 points per 100 possessions — helping the Magic improve.

Searching for impact

But Isaac was still a young player. He never really imprinted himself on the game.

There would be long stretches, even with Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier out of the lineup, where Jonathan Isaac would not impress himself on the game. He had an 18.3-percent usage rate this year, a number still climbing up from previous years but still below the average for a five-man unit.

Isaac still had most of his big scoring games because he was in the right spot to collect a pass and hit a jumper or make a cut to the basket. Coach Steve Clifford often talked about how he rarely called plays for Isaac.

That is something everyone ultimately wants to see change as he continues to grow and improve.

But then he will have the quick moments of brilliance. Isaac makes his presence known in quick bursts that are impossible to ignore. Like this play against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 13:

He scored 12 points in that game adding another turnaround jumper and a putback dunk to add to his highlight reel from that game.

But this kind of move early in the season showed how much more confidence Isaac had in his game. He was never willing to make this kind of quick, decisive move over a set defense. It was a preview of his ability.

That was what a lot of the early season was. Some brief snippets of who and what Isaac could become.

The Magic do not run a ton of isolation sets. Isaac was on the tail end of them, averaging 0.3 isolation possessions per game and scoring 1.00 points per possession on those plays. Before his injury, he was starting to explore and flex some of those isolation and pull-up muscles — sometimes a bit too much, but that kind of aggression was welcomed.

Making his impact

The trick with Isaac is continue building his confidence. He is a naturally quiet, unassuming guy. He is not trying to rustle feathers. And Clifford’s brilliance as a coach is how he creates structure but still gives players freedom to grow and improvise within that structure, so long as they do not stray too far.

Isaac is someone the Magic have to do a better job pushing to the front and emphasizing both within their offense and defense. They have to empower him.

The results when they do and when he takes that mantle have been the most impressive and exciting things about this season.

Isaac has his highlight plays, for sure. He stands out with each block and each defensive play that sparks the team. That is still where he makes his biggest impact.

He can track down players in transition like this. He can defend his man, like in the earlier clip, and block shots. And each time in changes the tenor of the game. All of a sudden, offensive players have to be aware of where Isaac is.

His most memorable games this year were not the scoring outbursts — like his 25-point effort against the Indiana Pacers (probably his best individual offensive game of his career where he took over large swaths of the game) or his 24-point effort against the Toronto Raptors.

Both of those games proved he could hit shots when he got into a rhythm and the team looked for and trust him.

But the games we talk about this year when we describe Isaac’s promise are more like his near 5×5 effort against the Dallas Mavericks. It is his efforts to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo, including four blocks against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Isaac lets everyone’s defensive imagination run wild. He could very well one day become the first wing player to lead the league in blocks since Andrei Kirilenko in 2004 (still perhaps Jonathan Isaac’s best player comparison).

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

The next step for Isaac is to impose his will on the game more consistently. He still disappears into the background too much on both ends. When his attention and energy are up, he is the most impactful player on the team.

Still on the hunt

Orlando’s hunt for a star is not so much a hunt for someone with brand name recognition. It is a hunt for someone who impacts the game by his presence and someone whom opponents have to gameplan for.

The excitement and anticipation with Isaac is he can have this impact on defense. If the Magic have anyone who is unique in the league and potentially elite at something.

These replays and watching his games back are a clear reminder of his potential on that front. They are clear reminders of the impact Isaac can make and all the promise contained within him.

They also serve as reminders that he still has a lot of pieces to put together. If last year served as his first full season in the league — a true rookie season, almost. This year was the expected leap you would see from someone in his second year.

That development too was cut short. A random, slow-recovering injury again halted his progress, frustrating him, the Magic and fans alike it seemed.

It is unclear when the Magic might see Isaac again. With the league currently on hiatus, Isaac is suddenly eyeing the potential to return when the league resumes operation.

So watching him on replay — Sunday’s replay of the Magic’s win over the 76ers from Dec. 27 is the last replay that will feature Isaac — is the only way to remember everything Isaac can do.

Next. Chuma Okeke is part of the solution for the Orlando Magic. dark

And every promise he still has yet to fulfill.