2020 Orlando Magic Player Evaluations: A season of setbacks for Jonathan Isaac

Jonathan Isaac is making progress in his recovery from a knee injury. But the Orlando Magic's season has felt empty without him. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images)
Jonathan Isaac is making progress in his recovery from a knee injury. But the Orlando Magic's season has felt empty without him. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images) /

Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac has endured another frustrating year after suffering two serious knee injuries within a few months.

The restart of the Orlando Magic’s season was going so well for the team and Jonathan Isaac. The tenacious, young, All-Defensive prospect had made a spectacular return from injury and looked set to help his team secure the Eastern Conference’s seventh spot.

That was until the 6-foot-11 forward suffered a nasty landing in the fourth quarter of the victory over the Sacramento Kings on August 2, sinking to the ground in agonizing pain and clutching the left knee he had injured just a few months earlier.

Magic fans winced. They knew it was bad from his reaction. Soon after their worst fears were realized as it was confirmed Jonathan Isaac had suffered a torn ACL which would not only rule him out of the rest of the Bubble games but also the entirety of next season.

For Isaac, it was the latest of a number of injury setbacks that have plagued his first three seasons in the NBA. Having fought so hard to make it to Orlando for the season restart following his posterior lateral corner injury and bone contusion to his left knee suffered on New Year’s Day against the Washington Wizards, he was set for another extended spell away from the court.

There were positives signs early on in the season. After managing to play 75 regular-season games in his second season in the league, which followed just 27 in his rookie year due to ankle problems, this past season offered a platform for Isaac to start pushing toward his lofty potential.

Transforming the Magic

When Jonathan Isaac was healthy and on the floor, he was a transformative player for the Orlando Magic.

His 24 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and three steals in a loss to the Toronto Raptors in October gave hope that this could be Isaac’s breakout year. But on just three other occasions did Isaac manage to make it past the 20-point mark, scoring a season-high 25 in the defeat against the Indiana Pacers in November two games later.

Isaac finished the season averaging 11.9 points per game, an improvement on the 9.6 he averaged the season before, though he did play 41 games more that year.

Per Game Table

Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/16/2020.

His landmark performance of the year came in a November loss to the Dallas Mavericks, where he posted 13 points, 10 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and four steals. He nearly joined the vaunted 5×5 club and dropped jaws around the league.

There are few players who can make Kristaps Porzingis look this small. Isaac was a swarming defensive player who was leading the league in “stocks” when his January injury hit.

The Magic had a 105.7 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor this year. The team had a 109.2 defensive rating for the year and 106.3 defensive rating on Jan. 1, the day of Isaac’s first knee injury. The Magic were better defensively with Isaac on the floor.

He is a disruptive force defensively with 4.1 deflections per 75 possessions (in the 98th percentile according to Basketball Index) and 3.0 blocks per 75 possessions also in the 98th percentile). He blocked 49 percent of the shots he contested, according to Basketball Index. That is the best mark in the league.

But it is not nearly these counting stats. Isaac caused real problems for teams trying to get into the paint. He was a rim protector, a rare thing for a perimeter player. Opponents shot 15.5 percentage points worse at the rim than the expected value with Isaac defending them, according to Second Spectrum. That mark was in the 96th percentile.

Isaac can still play himself out of position at times. But he recovers well and usually in time to make a play. It cannot be understated what a dynamic defensive player Isaac was this year.

Isaac’s defensive capabilities are clear, but it is offensively where the franchise and fans really wanted to see improvement.

Facing Offensive Questions

Question marks remain over Jonathan Isaac’s capabilities and potential offensively.

His offense has shown signs of steady improvement, shooting 47.0-percent from the field compared to 42.9-percent in his second season. He is also a capable three-point shooter at 34.0-percent with the potential to improve and his size and speed make him a danger close to the basket.

Isaac showed more willingness to take on more offensive responsibility. It was not merely those bigger scoring games. He was more assertive and aggressive looking for pull-up opportunities. He would take the ball into the post and display a growing fadeaway game.

His attack is still a bit rudimentary. It is still simple moves without much counters. And Isaac’s post game is still basic and clunky. But the potential for him to be a more diverse scorer is certainly present.

The hints are all there.

He made 44.0 percent of his corner 3s, showing that he had at least mastered that vital shot. He struggled to shoot, shooting worse than 30-percent — on 3-pointers at the top of the key and above the break.

Isaac can get to the rim decently well, but he still struggles to finish when he gets there. And he is not making plays to others. When Isaac gets the ball with an opportunity to score, he is more than likely shooting it.

Some of that probably still has to do with strength. But Isaac has shown hints he can be a gifted driver. He certainly has the athleticism and size to finish. But this is an important part in his development.

The Magic still were not running many plays for him.

Isaac was a strong offensive rebounder and if he got the ball near the glass, he was more than likely putting it back in. As he continues to add strength and mix things up, this will be a continued source of easy points for him.

Unfortunately, injuries have continued to hinder his development offensively. Isaac will likely never be a big-time scorer as his main contribution to the team remains off the ball. But, if his rehabilitation goes well and he can eventually stay injury-free on his return, he has shown he has the potential to be a good option offensively.

Related Story. 2020 Orlando Magic Player Outlook: Jonathan Isaac. light

Defense First

When people think of Jonathan Isaac, however, his offense is not the first thing that immediately springs to mind. Despite not managing to play many games, the former Florida State forward once again showed he was one of the main defensive talents in the league with some eye-catching performances.

His perfect combination of length, size, speed and agility makes it hard for any player in the league to get the better of him one-on-one. He averaged 1.6 steals and 2.6 blocks over 34 games while his rebounding numbers also improved from the season before, jumping from 5.5 to 6.8.

Isaac was a key part of why the Magic’s defensive rating of 109.2 was the joint-tenth best in the league and likely would have been even better had Isaac stayed healthy for the entire season. The Magic also ranked eighth for steals and blocks during the regular season, while Isaac himself had a defensive rating of 105.7.

His defensive IQ is evident when watching him play.

The 22-year-old always has a good sense of where to be and is able to stay with his opponent thanks to his physical strengths. A monster seven-steal game in the 111-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in December perfectly demonstrated his defensive anticipation and tendency to hassle opponents.

Isaac’s speed in transition often means he is able to get up the court quickly after stealing the ball and finish with a layup, dunk or find a teammate to do the same, as was on show against Milwaukee. He averaged 1.7 steals in the month of December before his injury, including back-to-back four-steal games against the Portland Trail Blazers and Chicago Bulls.

His ability to block shots also causes opposition offenses serious problems. He made a season-high six blocks against Dallas in November, when he was often guarding 7-foot-3 forward Kristaps Porzingis.

Isaac is a menace in his own paint and a fantastic rim protector as well as being a strong rebounder. At just 22, his ceiling as a defensive player remains enormously high despite his injury record.

Planning the future

F. Orlando Magic. JONATHAN ISAAC. A-.

When the season restarted in Orlando it seemed like Isaac was ready to show his importance to the franchise in a push for the seventh spot and the subsequent postseason. He scored 16 points against the Brooklyn Nets in the Magic’s first game back, making six of his seven attempts, and also finished with six rebounds and a steal.

Instead, another serious injury has left fans wondering whether Isaac will ever be able to reach his true potential. He is already one of the best defensive players in the league but two of his three seasons as a professional basketball player have been spent largely recovering from injuries.

Next season is the last year of Isaac’s rookie contract before he becomes a restricted free agent in the summer. What he has shown while on the court suggests he is worth keeping around as a core player to accompany with some offensive talent but question marks over his durability means the Magic front office has a big decision to make.

If his rehabilitation goes well, then the smart move would of course be to try and agree a new contract or match any best offer he might get as a restricted free agent. But only time will tell whether the young forward can shake off his latest injury nightmare and bounce back to his best. Patience is required if the Magic are to commit to him long-term.

For Isaac, it is all about rehabilitation. Suffering two serious injuries to the same knee within a few months of each other is a huge setback to his young career and it will take time for him to build up strength again following surgery.

Next. Evaluation: Aaron Gordon's injury-filled season. dark

Not having Isaac next season is a huge blow for the Magic. His offensive game was still developing but his defense will be a huge miss as the team looks for a way to push past its current position.