Jonathan Isaac’s long road back is almost over

Jonathan Isaac will step on a court for competitive basketball for the first time in nearly 2.5 years as his long journey back is nearly complete. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Jonathan Isaac will step on a court for competitive basketball for the first time in nearly 2.5 years as his long journey back is nearly complete. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

It feels like a lifetime ago for everyone with the Orlando Magic.

The optimism of seeing Jonathan Isaac back on the floor that August evening in the NBA’s pandemic-induced bubble at Disney in the middle of a blowout win over the Sacramento Kings quickly gave way to dread. The empty arena felt even quieter as Isaac writhed on the floor in paint, having torn his ACL.

What felt like a major, but still routine, injury recovery was anything but routine. Isaac has always struggled with injury recoveries for whatever reason — whether that is just a natural recovery from his body or an overabundance of caution. He missed the entire 2021 season as expected.

Patience was always the word of the day. But even the way this recovery went seemed to be full of pitfalls and frustration.

Right after the team announced he would miss the remainder of the 2022 season, he injured his hamstring and required surgery. Suddenly it was two years since he last played. And that brought with it added problems as he had to rebuild conditioning to playing at the NBA level once again.

In all, it has been a long journey. A long journey. One that sometimes did not feel like it would reach an end.

Jonathan Isaac is nearing the end of his long recovery road. The Orlando Magic have assigned him to Lakeland to play in games for the Lakeland Magic this week.

Isaac became the big question mark on the Magic. A player with immense talent but so little time on the court and no clear timetable for his return and an unusually long absence from the court.

He became a myth.

But the end is in sight. At long last Isaac is returning to the court.

The Orlando Magic assigned Isaac to the Lakeland Magic on Tuesday with the intention that he will be on the floor Wednesday for Lakeland’s game against the Westchester Knicks. It is not the NBA, but Isaac will be back playing competitive basketball once again with the chance he could stick with Lakeland for a second game this weekend before rejoining the NBA club when the team returns from this West Coast road trip.

And, who knows, perhaps Isaac returns to the NBA at long last on Jan. 20 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Then again, there are still no timetable on these things. Take this as a big step but still a step.

All we know is that Isaac is back on the court in a public game for the first time. It is the moment he has been waiting a long time for.

Isaac is back on the court and the feeling of anticipation and eagerness simply to be back on the court with few restrictions is a big one.

"“It honestly feels really great,” Isaac said after the team’s shootaround on Jan. 4. “I feel good. I’m just really progressing along. I’m super excited to get back into the flow with the guys.”"

Last week was a significant step for Isaac. He has been practicing with the Lakeland Magic since early December and then with the Orlando Magic when they were in town. But it was not until the practices last week when coach Jamahl Mosley said Jonathan Isaac was a “full go” in practice that he cleared a fairly important hurdle.

Isaac said last week, the practices on Jan. 2 and 3 were the first time playing 5-on-5 with the main roster players. Doing so without restriction was a major step and one that there were precious few opportunities to get with the team on the road and the limited practice time that comes during the season.

Isaac reported then that he felt good and that his conditioning was getting better every time he got out there. He said he felt like himself as he was able to get back out there and compete.

This is what Isaac was waiting for. He just needed the opportunity to play.

It will take a lot of time for Isaac to get all the way back to where he was before his injury — and this is really before his initial knee injury suffered on Jan. 1, 2020, well before his cameo in the bubble.

Back then, Isaac was shaping up to be one of the top defenders in the league and an all-defensive team player. He was averaging 2.3 blocks and 1.6 steals per game, leading the league in “stocks” at the time. But even advanced metrics projected him out to be one of the top defenders in the entire league.

Isaac was starting to put things together offensively, averaging 11.9 points per game on a 51.8-percent effective field goal percentage. Isaac was building off his first fully healthy season during the team’s playoff run in 2019. It looked like the stabilty from health was helping him grow.

Even in the bubble, Isaac seemed to improve as a shooter. His confidence was all there.

Now, Isaac will have to build all that back.

The Magic are sure to have some restrictions on him. President of basketball operations Jeff Weltman has expressed the most concern in managing Jonathan Isaac’s comeback in making sure he did not come back too quickly. Isaac has missed a lot of time and it is difficult to jump right back into an NBA level of play.

Still, the last step is the most important one. That is the step Isaac will clear Wednesday night in Lakeland. He will finally play a game. He will finally get to test himself in a game.

It is easier now to think about what that moment will be like when Isaac steps onto the court.

Isaac will get that reception and feeling playing a game in front of a crowd in Lakeland on Wednesday. But getting back on the NBA floor at the Amway Center or wherever and whenever he returns is going to be a special moment.

"“It has been a long road,” Isaac said after the Magic’s shootaround on Jan. 4. “It has been grueling at times. It has been exciting at times. There have been the ups and downs of I want to get back. If I didn’t have them, I don’t know if I would get to this moment. To have that peace and assurance that everything is going to be OK and my time is coming, feels good and it’s all because of Him.”"

He will surely look rusty. There will be starts and stops and moments of brilliance and moments of frustration still to come for Isaac as he tries to get himself back into the rhythm and flow of an NBA game.

All that matters right now is that he steps onto the court. That was always the first and most important goal.

Wednesday night, he will finally accomplish that. Even if it is on a G-League court.

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Soon, Isaac will make it all the way back at last. It is just a matter of time.