In our Orlando Magic Madness tournament, Jonathan Isaac has scored two upsets to prove he is popular and represents a future Magic fans want to see.
Our Orlando Magic Madness tournament was supposed to be fun. A way for us to pass the time with the league on hiatus and our need to have some sort of bracket to fill out with the NCAA Tournament also on the shelf for this year.
It was set up intentionally to be pretty vague.
I never asked for any criteria in picking between players, leaving the criteria up to the voters. It could be who your favorite player was. It could be who you think was the best player. It could be, well, anything.
The point of the exercise was more about having fun, creating some debate and seeing what the results end up being.
There are some truths that still emerge, however. Every little debate reveals some information about how fans relate to their team and the players they love and believe in.
Magic history is pretty stratified in where players stand on all-time rankings. The Mt. Rushmore is well established. It was no surprise that the best players clearly advanced as they did.
Except for one. And he is the one who probably brings the most hope and most optimism for the future. Fans are firmly behind him.
In a historical context, Jonathan Isaac is not ready to be mentioned in these circles.
He defeated Nikola Vucevic in the first round of our bracket which was probably more a statement of current popularity than anything else. Vucevic is one of the most productive and best players in Magic history, easily one of the top-10 players in franchise history.
Aaron Gordon has had his ups and downs in his career. And the Magic may face a decision point where they pick between the two young forward. But certainly part of Gordon’s career arc has been frustration with is progress and development, even as he has taken small steps forward.
There is impatience with Gordon. Meanwhile, Isaac is still in the honeymoon phase of his young career. His arc is nothing but promise and development.
Isaac has career averages of 9.3 points per game and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with the Magic. He has really played in only one fully healthy season, suffering a severe ankle sprain during his rookie year and now dealing with the severe knee sprain that has kept him out since Jan. 1.
The Magic front office has been extremely cautious with Isaac’s health. That at least shows an extreme faith in Isaac and his future. The Magic are fully invested in him. They are willing to take their time to let Isaac reach his full potential. They have played a long-term game with him at every step of his career.
Isaac is firmly a part of the Magic’s future. That much is clear.
And fans have swarmed to him, clearly. He is probably the most popular and most favored player on the team for them. This poll probably shows that — his next matchup is with Jameer Nelson.
A lot of that has to be because of the promise and potential he has. Isaac represents the future. He represents a break from the painful rebuild the Magic are still coming out of.
For the same reason Vucevic is unpopular — he is a player with a clear ceiling and was the face of the worst era of Magic basketball (an unfair take for him) — Isaac is popular. When the Magic are actualized and become the best version of themselves, it feels like it will be because of Isaac and his limitless potential.
That might be unfair pressure to put on the 21-year-old player. But Isaac has also shown enough promise to build that excitement — not only from fans getting giddy about him but teammates also heaping praise on what Isaac can do.
Of any player on the Magic, Isaac is the one player that has presented truly elite skills. This is not Aaron Gordon or Nikola Vuceivc or Evan Fournier looking like a fringe All-Star (all three have at various points of their career with Vucevic making the game last year). This is a player who is at the top of the league in some statistical categories and garnering all-league consideration.
Before Isaac’s injury, he was averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game. He was fourth in blocks and 12th in steals. If Isaac had finished the season at that pace, he would have been a clear pick to finish on the All-Defensive Team and get votes for Defensive Player of the Year.
It seems inevitable that Isaac will get multiple All-Defensive Team selections in his career. He at least flirted this year with becoming the first wing player to win the league’s blocks crown since Andrei Kirilenko in 2004.
That should give some sense at how rare a season Isaac was having. And he was not chasing blocks and getting out of position. The Magic were one of the best defensive teams in the league overall and Isaac’s defensive metrics had jumped in almost every way.
Last year, opponents shot 44.3 percent against Isaac, according to NBA.com, 1.9 percentage points better than the team had with Isaac on the floor overall. This year he was at 42.5 percent defended field goal percentage, nearly five percentage points better than the team had overall.
Even with that incredibly flawed metric — defended field goal percentage credits a defended field goal to whichever defender is closest when the shot goes up, it does not mean a player played good or bad defense — that drop off is pretty dramatic. It shows just what Isaac can do.
Observationally, Isaac is a much better individual defender, adding to his already strong defensive instincts. He was better at staying in front of and containing his man, using less of his athleticism as a recovery tool and using it as a mode of attack. His growing maturity and discipline on that end had become significantly clearer.
Swarm and Sting
Indeed, through the course of the injuries early in the season, Isaac started to get more freedom to expand his game offensively. He still deferred a lot, but his willingness to take shots was becoming more prevalent. He was gaining confidence.
His 3-point shooting dipped to 33.0 percent (up from last year actually), but his effective field goal percentage cleared 50 percent for the first time in his career. Even with increased minutes, field goal attempts and usage, he was becoming more efficient.
Still, nobody knows what kind of offensive player Isaac can be. Will he be the kind of offensive player the Magic turn to late in games to create a shot? Will he be a superstar player on that end?
But the reality is nobody knows how good Isaac can be. There is fair skepticism that he may not ever be much more than a replacement offensive player.
His defense is more than enough to get by for the time being. He can contribute at a high level for a playoff team. But his ceiling still feels unlimited and uncertain.
Fans clearly buy into that potential. It is easy to get wrapped up in how good and easy Isaac makes things look. Nobody else on this current team impacts the game as clearly as he does.
More than anything that is what everyone misses and hopes to see again.
That is what everyone is buying into.