The Orlando Magic are still reeling from the news of Jonathan Isaac’s torn ACL. But they are equally confident this is Day 1 of his rehab and return.
Jonathan Isaac’s injury put a pall over the Orlando Magic’s win over the Sacramento Kings. Players on the bench were visibly shaken watching Isaac carted off the court in a wheelchair. Jonathan Isaac himself appeared to be crying as he sat in his pain, holding his knee.
The mood around the team was somber even after a big win. Players respect and love their teammate and it gutted them to watch Isaac suffer a seemingly random injury only a few games after working so hard to get back from a severe sprain to that same knee.
An MRI taken inside the NBA’s campus at Disney confirmed Isaac had torn his ACL in his left knee. He would need to leave the bubble for a full MRI to determine the full extent of the damage and the next steps in his recovery — likely surgery and very likely a full year away from the court as he rehabs.
President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman, like everyone else with the team was down about the injury as he went to grab Isaac and check him out of the Grand Floridian. What he found was something those who know Isaac likely come to expect.
His music was blaring and Isaac was upbeat. Weltman said Isaac lifted his spirits as he so often does with his teammates. After the shock of the injury and the realization not only that his season was over but there was a long way to go had passed, Isaac got back to his normal positive, determined self.
This was Day 1 of his long journey back. And if anyone can make it back, the Magic are confident it is Isaac.
“This is a very unfortunate injury at a very inopportune moment,” president of basketball operations Weltman said in a media call on Monday. “Jonathan knows he has the support of the entire organization behind him. We know through who Jonathan is and through history how he is going to approach his rehab. I can tell you today in his mind is Day 1 of his rehab.”
It is still unclear the extent of Isaac’s injury — a second MRI outside of the campus will help diagnose the injury further and determine his next course of action. And so it is still unclear how long he will be out — usually players with a torn ACL miss a full year of play like Kristaps Porzingis last year and Klay Thompson and Chuma Okeke this year.
The Magic found some solace and silver lining in the belief in who Isaac is.
But the day after the injury took place, the only feeling was organizational frustration that someone who works so hard and does so much good is dealing with another major injury. Jeff Weltman said he was sickened that Isaac has to go through this again.
Coach Steve Clifford said almost all the players either visited Jonathan Isaac in his room or were present when Isaac left the hotel. It was difficult to watch him leave the court just as it was to watch him leave the campus and his teammates.
They too felt the frustration of watching their teammate go through the work to come back and make a huge impact for them even in just one seeding round game, only to fall to another seemingly random injury.
“It was a heart crusher for real,” Evan Fournier said after Monday’s practice. “It’s tough because you lose a teammate obviously, but J.I. has such a good heart. He’s really trying to do the right thing every day. It makes it harder for us to watch him on the ground in pain.”
The initial shock is still washing over the team. And seeing Isaac in good spirits as he left seemed to lift everyone up some as they continue to prepare for their next game and the playoffs on the horizon.
The reminder everyone gave was the encouragement of knowing who Isaac is and the work he will put in to get back. He has proven already in coming back from the ankle injury during his rookie season and the knee injury that knocked him out since Jan. 1 until the team returned to the campus that he can put the work in to return.
That is where everyone is putting their faith in Isaac.
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Their belief is that he has gone through this struggle before and come out better. While another obstacle has been put in his path, he has the experience to draw from to get better.
“You know guys know those who follow us locally how special a person Jonathan is,” Weltman said Monday. “His dedication to his craft and his devotion to his faith. He already has a track record unfortunately of how he is going to approach this injury, how he is going to approach the rehab, the work ethic and the positivity that he is going to bring to all that bears. It’s unfortunate that we are talking about this again. But one thing we know about Jonathan Isaac is he is going to make the best of it.”
Returned on time
Certainly, the question was raised whether Jonathan Isaac should have even been back on the floor, to begin with.
On Jan. 1, Isaac suffered a posterior lateral corner injury to his left knee that would cause him to miss the rest of the regular season. Only the pandemic opened the door for his return when the league announced it would resume games in late July and early August.
That motivated Isaac to work hard to get back to the floor. Steve Clifford said Jonathan Isaac was among the first people in the AdventHealth Practice Facility once it reopened doing strength workouts and physical therapy. He would then come back for an afternoon or evening session to do skill work with assistant coach Pat Delany.
Weltman said the Magic are known for being extra cautious with long-term injuries, admitting to some criticism the team is overly cautious on this front. He said the Magic would not have cleared Isaac to play if he did not pass every benchmark they set and then cleared the next benchmark after review with the team’s medical staff and performance directors.
Clifford said before Sunday’s game that he spoke with the team’s performance staff and medical personnel regularly about Isaac and other players to help manage their workload as the team gets back to play.
The team is very methodical about how it prepares players for a return from injury.
At least from the initial examination of his injury, Weltman said doctors told him the torn ACL was unrelated to the previous injury. Weltman said doctors told him the structures damaged in the posterior lateral corner injury were unaffected by the ACL injury.
Weltman said unequivocally Isaac was not back on the court too soon.
Approach to rehab
To be sure, the Orlando Magic will exercise the same methodical approach in helping Isaac return this time around. Something they are already working on as they devise his comeback.
“We want to generate the best data that we can before we design a course of action and get into specifics,” Weltman said Monday. “We fully expect Jonathan to have a full recovery and come back bigger and stronger. He’s 22 and he is going to start filling into his body, he already has. We fully expect Jonathan to be stronger for this, a better player and everything he was going to be and more.”
The Magic will have at least a little recent experience dealing with an ACL.
Orlando’s 2019 draft pick, Chuma Okeke, arrived to the team in the middle of his rehab with a torn ACL. Weltman said how they dealt with his recovery will be a little bit different because the Magic acquired Okeke while he was in the middle of his recovery — Okeke also rehabbed mostly while he was with the Lakeland Magic as the Orlando Magic deferred the recovery year and did not sign him to his rookie contract.
Whatever similarities they can glean from, Okeke will likely be with the team next season as someone Isaac can lean on for experience and advice as he recovers. Isaac and Okeke already seem friendly from the short time Okeke was in Orlando before training camp.
Okeke figures to have a path to some minutes now that Isaac is out. He should have a full rookie year whenever the 2021 season begins.
The torn ACL is not a death sentence anymore for players. Several players are able to get back and play at a high level — Dallas Mavericks forward Kristaps Porzingis is probably the closest analog to Jonathan Isaac.
Porzingis is averaging 19.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game, all averages in line with his last full year with the New York Knicks in 2018 (his shooting is only down because of an increase in 3-point shooting volume).
A return is very much possible even as the Magic are likely to manage his injury and recovery carefully when he is finally ready to return.
That all seems a long way off. There is still a long road to go to get to that conversation. That includes deciding how to repair the damage and discovering the extent of the injury.
So much feels unknown. And all anyone can do is hope and pray for the best.
“What can I say? I hope everything is going to go well,” Evan Fournier said after practice Monday. “Obviously surgery, so we all hope the surgery is going to go well. and the process is going to not be too long for him and things are going to go his way. I can’t tell you I’m confident in anything because I’m not in control. I’m confident J.I. is going to do everything he can to make things better. But that’s all I can say.”
The team is going to have to find a way without him in the short-term. And certainly, the team’s long-term prospects change a bit as the Magic wait out Isaac’s recovery — Isaac can become a restricted free agent after the 2021 season, so the Magic will have to make a contract decision on the young big man likely before he returns to the court.
But one thing is certainly known: It is exactly what Isaac seemed to tell Weltman when he saw him before.
Isaac will be determined to get back and put in the necessary work to return. It may take time for that return to occur. Everyone will have to wait for Isaac to get through that process.
This is Day 1 of his recovery. A recovery that Isaac will make sure has a happy ending.