Jonathan Isaac’s return gives Orlando Magic a huge boost

Jonathan Isaac is inching back to his return for the Orlando Magic as he returned to the court and traveling with the team. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Jonathan Isaac is inching back to his return for the Orlando Magic as he returned to the court and traveling with the team. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

Jonathan Isaac played his first game since Jan. 1, giving the Orlando Magic a huge boost and a whole lot more in the process.

Jonathan Isaac was not sure what to expect when he stepped onto the floor for the first time since injuring his knee Jan. 1. Nobody was quite sure what to expect.

After the Orlando Magic’s shootaround Monday, coach Steve Clifford said the goal was simply to throw Jonathan Isaac out onto the court and see how he responded. They were not focused on integrating him into any role on offense. They may not even still be counting on him being involved moving forward.

Isaac said he only wanted to go out there and find his place in the game. He said he was trying to find his shot, making it a point to be assertive in that way.

This was a simple test run.

But everyone was eager and excited to see him play. His teammates most of all wanted to see him play.

So to see him do this? To see him put up 13 points on 5-for-6 shooting with seven rebounds in seven minutes? To see him completely change the energy of the game, sparking a 24-4 run where he and fellow debut player Markelle Fultz score 18 of those points?

This was all too good to be true.

"“It felt really good,” Isaac said after Monday’s game. “It’s really fun to be back out there. I think one of the biggest parts of being back out there was being back with my teammates, being able to put my jersey on and kind of just coming full circle with all the work that was put in. To be back on the court feels good. I’m glad I played well and my teammates were rooting me on.”"

Everyone in the Magic community seemed to be giving that support. Isaac rose into the top-5 trending topics on Twitter during his stint on the floor. His impact was undeniable.

It was undoubtedly a long road back.

Jonathan Isaac injured his knee on Jan. 1 when his leg wrapped around Bradley Beal’s leg while going for a Euro-step in transition. He was diagnosed with a posterior lateral corner injury, only starting to travel and do set shots in early March before the season went on hiatus.

When the Amway Center opened back up after the pandemic started, Isaac was among the first players to take advantage of the gym time. Clifford said Isaac met with the team’s medical staff and they devised a plan to get him back with no guarantee that he would be able to return when the season restarted in late July.

That plan included two-a-day workouts and rehab for even that small chance.

The Magic brought him with them into the campus and he progressed through practice in those early days of camp eventually getting time on the court and playing contact drills. All leading up to Monday’s game.

It was indeed a lot of work to have this chance.

"“He was great,” Clifford said after Monday’s game. “I think that not just the way he played, but his energy level, his purpose of play and his shot-making. The best thing is the lift he gives the team. You saw when he came out how happy the guys were. It was good to have him back and have him on the floor.”"

When Isaac checked into the game, he got to work pretty quickly.

He got a rebound fairly early and then grabbed an offensive rebound, getting a putback with a foul on his first offensive touch of the game.

Isaac was not afraid to let it fly. He got the ball next in the corner, jab stepped and fired over Nikola Jokic. Making that 3-pointer was a huge confidence boost.

Isaac kept things going, draining a 3-pointer with a foul for a four-point play. He made that same Euro step that he got injured with through traffic for a finish. And he finished in transition on a nice layup.

It was a boost the team needed, sparking that critical 24-2 run that staked Orlando a lead it would not give up in the 114-110 win.

The run of play was completely unexpected from a player who had been out for so long. It felt like Isaac was burning off the energy held in from so long on the shelf.

Clifford said he was not surprised Isaac was able to fit in. He complimented Isaac on his ability to study the game and stay engaged with the team. Clifford said he had no concern about Isaac knowing what the Magic were running. He would fit into the organization the team had.

He was just surprised by the shotmaking right off the top. It was surprising how much his energy changed the game.

But more importantly, the team built momentum because Isaac’s teammates were so happy for his production. With each basket, they stood and cheered loudly.

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When Isaac finally left the floor, they seemed to swarm him — as socially distant as they could — to celebrate this long-awaited return.

"“I think we all see just his energy on both ends of the floor,” Fultz said after Monday’s game. “I think he was very excited to get out on the floor, just like everyone else. It’s hard not to play hard when he is on the floor because on both ends he is running the floor, he is playing defense. He kind of helped me a lot just being out there with him and seeing his energy. He pushed me to go harder.”"

Nobody knows quite yet what the future holds for Isaac.

The plan for Isaac is to continue evaluating him daily. Clifford said he would meet with the team’s performance staff to assess how he is responding to continued practice and workload. It is not yet clear whether he will play in Friday’s opener against the Brooklyn Nets.

It is likely to be that way for some time as the Magic slowly build him up.

Isaac looked strong in his seven minutes on the court. But he admitted after the game he was pretty tired afterward. He might have been able to play in the second half if needed. But there is still a lot of endurance to build back up.

But it is clear that Isaac can make a pretty big impact. Even in that limited time.

All of a sudden, the Magic seem to have a fresh spark and the chance to do anything.

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He completely flipped the game. And the Magic — everyone on the team and fans everywhere — were happy to have him back on the floor.