Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Isaac clearing final hurdles in return

Jonathan Isaac's long road to recovery is entering a new stage as he gets closer and closer to his return for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Isaac's long road to recovery is entering a new stage as he gets closer and closer to his return for the Orlando Magic. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports /

You could almost hear the whispers generated from Orlando Magic fans when you finally saw it.

It was almost a myth, happening too quickly for anyone to get a camera out. You will just have to trust the handful of reporters that saw it happen — multiple times too! — that it happened.

Jonathan Isaac on a basketball floor, taking a confident and somewhat bored dribble during a shooting drill before rising up for a two-handed dunk. Or there he was working with several coaches and staff, fighting for post position, taking a bump, losing the ball on a spin move but still finishing the drill and jamming it through with two hands.

Jonathan Isaac is getting closer and closer to his return. While he will not participate in Orlando Magic training camp fully, the question is no long if Isaac will return.

This has likely been happening for some time. Seeing it in view of the media is merely an appetizer for what is likely to come this season. But Isaac’s long journey back appears to be nearly over.

There are only those final hurdles to get through.

"“I feel fantastic,” Isaac said at Media Day. “I feel the best that I’ve felt through this entire process. I’ve been telling everybody, I’m running, I’m jumping, I’m playing one on one, I’m doing all these things. We’re ready to kind of really start putting it all together and ramping this thing up. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I want to get on the court and I’m excited about it.”"

Isaac is not merely a myth anymore.

After two years on the shelf recovering from a torn ACL — and then what was called a minor hamstring injury — and the sometimes frustrating lack of information that came about his progress and recovery, Isaac is back on a basketball floor in plain view of at least the media.

There seems to be little doubt he will make his return to the court at some point during the 2022-23 season. When remains a mystery — he is limited in camp to non-contact drills — but the if part of the equation seems to be gone.

As frustrating and grueling as the last two seasons have been waiting, Isaac and his teammates are eager to see him back out there at last.

"“I know this is a long process,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said. “I always harken back to his ability to remain focused in what has been a really long ordeal for him. We are hopeful to have him back during the season and I won’t put a timetable on that as usual. We want to put him in the best possible space to get his work done.”"

To be sure there is still a lot of work to do to get him there. As close as Isaac might be, he is still not back on the court for good. There are still some final hurdles to clear.

Both Weltman and Isaac characterized his next step as combining a bunch of different things and seeing how he feels.

Isaac said there really are no more physical hurdles to clear. He said he is fully recovered from the injury, it is just ramping him up to play more and more.

When Isaac was asked further, he said he is 100 percent fully recovered from his ACL injury. The injury rehab is over. Is he ready to play at game speed though? He said no. That is where he is putting the work in.

Isaac said he is putting pressure to do more as much as anyone even as he recognizes there is a long game to make sure he is fully healthy and ready to return to play not only without restrictions but without concern for injury.

That is the ultimate goal. It is why Weltman has repeated the team wants to be careful and ramp up Isaac appropriately. They do not want that false start where he gets hurt shortly after returning to the court.

When Isaac is back he is back for good. That is the goal at least.

Thus, the seeming stages for his return. Thus, why Isaac is doing contact in one drill, but not ready for 5-on-5 full contact. That will likely be the last stage.

As Isaac describes it, he is doing all of these skills individually. He is sprinting, jumping and doing body contact. But they are all in pieces.

The stage Isaac is at is described this way:

"“Can we put it all together with the way that we’re working out,” Isaac said at Media Day. “Where it’s like you’re guarding this guy, then you are on offense over here and you’re hitting this guy, can we put it all together and do it enough that we’re comfortable letting you out there? If it’s on me, I’m comfortable right now.“As we ramp this thing up, can I do it multiple days in a row of running, jumping, hitting, sprinting, dunking and be OK? Or is it going to be 2-3 days and I need a break? A lot of this stuff I haven’t done at game speed. I’m just excited to hear that word ‘game speed’ again and be ready to ramp to game speed.”"

Basketball is a complicated sport. It requires players to play offense and defense uninterrupted. There is very little time to pause. And there is a lot of improvisation and unpredictability in the game too. The one thing no drill can prepare a player for is that.

At some point, the Magic are going to have to clear Isaac to try to go through this process. He may not quite be there yet.

But Isaac is clearly talking about that day on the horizon. It is not something off in the distance. How close remains uncertain to the public at least. But it is there.

"“He continues to go from level to level in his rehabilitation process,” Weltman said during Media Day. “It is a very slow, painstaking process. I don’t want to put a timetable on it because it is just open-ended. We just don’t know. He has to put the work in and when that next level is reached then he will move up. That is obviously under the attention of the performance staff and the medical staff and most importantly how Jonathan feels as he progresses.”"

The next question then comes into focus: How good is Isaac going to be when he returns?

Isaac averaged 11.9 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game and 3.9 “stocks” per game during the 2020 season, playing 34 games (32 before his initial injury on Jan. 1, 2020, and then two more in the Bubble before tearing his ACL). He was on track to be on the All-Defensive team before his initial knee injury.

What was impressive with Isaac too was how he came back from his initial injury as a seemingly better shooter in the Bubble, albeit in small sample sizes.

Isaac said skill wise he feels like he is the best basketball player he has been. After all, shooting is about the only thing he has been able to do.

This is perhaps where Isaac is doing his work most. He is trying to regain the comfort on the court that is lost in two years. He is trying to get back to where he was before injuries derailed his career.

But who knows what that will look like with all the restrictions the Magic are likely going to place on him.

"“At the end of the day, what’s going to happen is going to happen,” Isaac said at Media Day. “In terms of going out there with a chip on my shoulder like I need to prove something, my game is my game. I know that I can still play it at a high level and a higher level than I’ve ever played it before. I’m going to be ready to go. I’m excited to play and I’m excited to find out the player that I’m going to be. I know I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what I can be in this league.”"

Neither he nor anyone will know what kind of defender he can be until he is back playing 5-on-5 again. That part of the equation is the biggest mystery of all.

There is still work to do clearly. Isaac is not back on the court yet. Everyone is still patiently waiting for that day.

Next. Paolo Banchero must trust his strengths. dark

There are still hurdles to clear. But the whispers of Isaac playing are growing louder. The reality is becoming clearer.