The Orlando Magic were eager to welcome Jonathan Isaac back into the fold. But his return is not a cure-all for a team pushing to make the Playoffs.
Fair or not, Jonathan Isaac represents the team’s future and he is one of the few players on the team who does anything seemingly at an elite level. Before his injury, Isaac was on track to make his first All-Defensive team. Nationally, basketball heads are salivating over Isaac’s potential on that end.
When he went down with a posterior lateral corner injury to his left knee, it felt like the season was going down with him. The year, as disappointing as it was with the team struggling with injuries and for its place in the standings, felt kind of pointless without Isaac in there to continue growing and developing.
The league’s hiatus for the coronavirus pandemic opened the door for his return. It offered at least the hope that Isaac would be able to return and give that team the edge.
If his first game was any indication, Isaac was ready to burst through that door.
He scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in his seven minutes of play. More than his raw production, he lifted the whole energy of the team up. The 24-2 run that he and Markelle Fultz sparked in that 114-110 win Wednesday was a breath of fresh air for the team.
The group had a lot of energy and a little bit of swagger with those players back on the court. They both seemed to fit in so perfectly to the way the Magic want to play.
It was hardly Isaac at full strength. But it was refreshing and encouraging. Magic fans had Isaac trending on Twitter nationally with the impact he made.
This was the best the Magic played at any point in the three scrimmages.
But it is not something the team can rely on. Not yet.
The Magic still have a lot of issues to resolve as the seeding round takes place. These are not items that Isaac — especially when he is still regaining his form after nearly eight months out with an injury — will be able to fix.
It is great to have Isaac back. He truly lifts the team up. His potential as a defensive ace and playmaker could very well push the Magic over the top for the seventh-seed and a competitive playoff series — if not more.
Isaac is central to this team’s future.
But it is not something the Magic can rely on. Isaac’s return will not fix all the problems the Magic have. Nor will it guarantee their success.
His return is a bonus, not a cure.
A lot to work on
The Orlando Magic’s three scrimmages were certainly a work in progress for the team. A lot of it was about trying to find the team’s rhythm and get out and play. The result was less important than the team’s execution and ability to stick to the team’s plan and structure.
The Magic wanted to use the scrimmages to get back into the rhythm of playing, using practices to fine-tune things. This was not the regular season and the way the games were played should not “count,” so to speak.
Like in the preseason, it is very likely the Magic will look very different when the games count — including a somewhat increased minutes load even as the Magic slowly ramp that up and more focus and intensity on both ends. The Magic merely needed to see signs of the team’s progression.
But that still left a lot to work on.
Orlando’s transition defense was poor throughout the scrimmages. And the team’s communication, especially on pick and rolls was spotty at best. Orlando gave up a lot of 3-pointers too.
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Some of this will be cured with increased intensity and focus that naturally comes from the beginning of the regular season. Jonathan Isaac’s return will also help with this because of his natural defensive instincts.
But Isaac will not be playing his regular minutes, not right away at least. He probably is not going to start even — certainly not at the beginning and perhaps not even until the Playoffs, if then.
So Isaac’s impact will be limited in fixing the Magic’s defensive issues.
Further, the Magic’s biggest struggle in the scrimmages was their poor shooting. The Orlando Magic famously went 11 for 50 in the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, but their poor 3-point shooting continued even beyond the first half.
The Magic went 30 for 104 (28.8 percent) on 3-pointers in the three scrimmages. Take out the 18 for 37 they shot against the Denver Nuggets on Monday, and things look a lot worse — like 17.9 percent bad.
Some of this was to be expected. The Magic are not a great shooting team to begin with. And the team needed some time to find its rhythm and its legs after the long layoff.
The Magic generally got decent shots and missed them — especially in the game against the Lakers. And the team has to stick to that ball movement. That was not something the team did all the time.
Isaac is certainly an improved shooter. His two 3-pointers in Monday’s game were encouraging. But he is not a known shooter. He will not solve the Magic’s offensive problems except only as a guy who will keep the ball moving when the shot is not there.
It is not like the Magic run a lot of plays for him anyway.
So there are bigger issues for the team to fix that go beyond anything Isaac can impact in the limited minutes he will play.
Planning to play without him
Throughout the entire hiatus, the Orlando Magic said they were planning to play without Isaac. His presence is a bonus more than anything else.
The reality is Isaac is playing his first games since Jan. 1. It is not clear how much the Magic will be able to rely on him.
Isaac said after Wednesday’s game he was pretty tired after those seven minutes. Coach Steve Clifford said the plan with Jonathan Isaac is to evaluate him every day with discussions with the medical staff. He would not commit after Wednesday’s game to saying what his role would be Friday or moving forward.
It will truly be day to day — as it is with every player.
In other words, the Magic are still planning to play without Isaac for the most part.
Whatever minutes Isaac gets should still be productive for him and the team. And the question will be how much of that energy carries over when he leaves the game.
The Magic certainly can fit Isaac seamlessly into the lineup. He plays well at that faster pace. Isaac has always been good at running in transition. that has been one area where Isaac has always been able to find points.
Markelle Fultz’s return certainly helped pick up the pace some. The Magic were playing with more energy and intensity throughout Wednesday’s game. Isaac and Fultz’s presence helped with that.
But they saw in their other scrimmages how quickly they can lose that energy and how quickly their offense can get stuck in the mud.
Isaac provides that lift for sure. But his time on the court will be limited. It would be impossible to expect Isaac to step back on the court for the 29.7 minutes per game he was averaging before the injury. It is hard to imagine him playing more than 10-14 minutes per game when the season starts.
Orlando, always cautious with injuries to its young players, is not about to throw Isaac into the deep end. And so any lift Isaac gives may be temporary and residual.
After all, the Magic built a 21-point lead with Isaac in the game and then quickly allowed the lead to whittle down to four over the second and third quarters when the wave from Isaac’s arrival subsided.
How Isaac can still help
But Jonathan Isaac makes an undeniable impact on the game. He is the one player on the roster who seems to have an elite skill.
And this is even with the limited minutes he will play.
With a career-high 12.0 points per game before his knee injury, Isaac was beginning to come into his own offensively. He was willing to be more assertive and take his own shots. His game was still a bit rudimentary, but he was taking shots without hesitation — his field goal attempts per game jumped from 8.1 to 10.1.
The Magic were not running a ton of plays for him, but Isaac was getting more involved. He played a lot more games where he got hot and was suddenly a major offensive weapon.
Of course, Isaac’s real impact came on the defensive end.
He was a dominant defensive player this year. It is hard to capture with statistics. But like how there are offensive playmakers who can beat set defenses, Isaac is a defensive playmaker. The Magic have not had a guy like that since Dwight Howard.
The promise with Jonathan Isaac is that he becomes a pterodactyl defender like Andrei Kirilenko, the last perimeter or wing player to lead the league in blocks. That seems like the best comparison for the kind of impact he can have.
Undoubtedly that kind of play can lift a team. Magic players were so excited to have him back on the court on Monday that it clearly helped raise the level of play throughout the roster.
Once it was clear Isaac came to play, everyone else picked up their intensity, even if Isaac was still a bit bouncy and overzealous defensively. He has to get himself in shape and rhythm too and he will make mistakes.
The way Isaac plays, especially without many plays run for him, naturally picks the pace of the team up. And he makes the kind of hustle plays that are the difference between wins and losses. He steals points on both ends of the floor.
It will be hard to keep Isaac off the floor, even with where his game is at now.
The Magic will be trying to figure out then how to harness this impact. It will only go as far as Isaac’s body will let it — or how comfortable the medical staff is with playing him.
And Isaac’s presence will be a boost to the team. The Magic’s only chance to surprise in the campus is with Isaac there.
But it will be a process to get there. And Orlando will have to prepare and act like Isaac is a bonus instead of an essential part of their team. At least for the time being.
Isaac’s return is welcome and necessary. But the Magic still have a lot of work to do and Isaac’s presence alone will not push the Magic over the top.