Who is the Orlando Magic’s best individual perimeter defender?

Franz Wagner shined as a versatile defender in his rookie season with the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Franz Wagner shined as a versatile defender in his rookie season with the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports /
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Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac was a disruptive defensive force before injuries forced him to miss the last two seasons. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

Who is the Orlando Magic’s best perimeter defender?

The Case for Jonathan Isaac

It is easy to forget just how good Jonathan Isaac was defensively in the 2020 season before his initial knee injury. It is hard to project how good Isaac will be when he does finally hit the court this season.

Whatever shape Isaac is in, the Magic should still feel confident they will get someone who can make a positive impact defensively. Whether that is working as simply a rim protector and free safety backstop or someone they feel comfortable locking up the best players in the league one-on-one.

Jonathan Isaac is still the only player on the team with an elite NBA skill (Paolo Banchero might be giving him a run for that title with his scoring and playmaking). He was on track to make the all-defensive team before his injury in 2020.

This is not just about his stellar 13-point, 10-rebound, five-assist, four-steal and six-block performance against the Dallas Mavericks. That near 5×5 game put the whole league on notice of his impact defensively. The Magic were waiting that season to see if his offense would catch up.

The Magic can only hope they can deploy Isaac as a do-everything defender when he returns. It is yet to be seen how quickly these instincts return or just how much athleticism he has been able to rebuild. Likely, Isaac will have stages where he looks good and stages where he struggles.

But he was otherworldly defensively in 2020.

He gave up 0.70 points per possession as the defender in 33 isolation possessions according to NBA.com. Opponents shot 3.9 percentage points worse when Isaac was the closest defender according to NBA.com’s tracking stats.

The advanced numbers are also impressive.

Opponents shot 8.52 percentage points worse at the rim than expected and he had 2.9 blocks per 75 possessions. All among the very best in the league.

His on-ball perimeter defense ranked in the 66th percentile in the league according to Basketball Index. But he ranked in the 96th percentile in pass lane defense and deflections per 75 possessions.

Even for a player of his size, he was good at chasing players around screens — ranking in the 64th percentile in off-ball chaser defense.

He was just a menace, getting his hand on the ball constantly and keeping opponents off balance with his size and skill on that end. Isaac was just not someone players were getting by. And it is just exciting thinking of the possibilities if Isaac can get close to those levels from 2020 before his injury.

It is yet to be seen how quickly Isaac can approach those levels or what he can contribute. But Isaac was simply disruptive and able to do anything the Magic needed from him defensively.

He too might work better as a free safety than as a primary defender. But he was more than capable of stepping in and getting a stop.

The Magic will be trying to find roles. But the good news is they have a lot of players capable of taking on the responsibility of guarding their man and getting critical stops.

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Even better news is they have plenty of help behind them too and should prove to have a tough defense to crack this year.