Jonathan Isaac is one of the few players on the Orlando Magic with playoff experience.
That is a fantastical statement to make because he has played in only 14 games since Jan. 1, 2020. He is something of an elder statesman on the team despite a shockingly limited number of games played.
The team in many ways has moved on. Yet, they cannot quite quit him. The potential is still too tantalizing and the team continues to give him chances.
He is still front and center.
He is the highest-paid player on the team for whatever that has meant on a team largely rebuilding, stirring up echoes of the frustrations of Grant Hill’s injury-filled tenure with the Magic. Even he played 33 games in four seasons before playing out the final three years of his contract and contributing to the first playoff team with Dwight Howard in 2007.
There is still the potential for Isaac to contribute in the same way, spanning eras and helping usher in the next wave of the Magic.
That is not his focus. His focus is, as it always has been, to get healthy. He is aiming to get healthy.
Jonathan Isaac is fully cleared to participate in the Orlando Magic’s training camp. At long last Isaac can focus on playing and move forward from years of injury.
In that sense, the start of the season could not be going much better for Isaac. He is fully healthy and cleared for training camp without any known restrictions. He was scheduled to be a full participant in the Magic’s first day of training camp Tuesday.
"“It feels great,” Isaac said at media day Monday. “You guys know it has been a few years since I have been able to just start a season fully healthy. Since the team has been able to start a season fully healthy outside of me. To be in Day 1 of training camp, I have been playing with the guys all summer, so I’m just extremely excited.”"
It is a small thing. But this will be the first time Isaac has started training camp without any injury restrictions since the start of the 2020 season.
That was the year, of course, where this injury odyssey started. On Jan. 1, 2020, after a strong start to the year that put him in line for an All-Defensive Team selection, he suffered a lateral corner injury in his knee. He returned when the season resumed in the bubble after the early days of the pandemic only to tear his left ACL after appearing in three games (two seeding round games and one warmup game).
Isaac missed the entire 2021 season. While he participated in some drills to open the 2022 season, he still was not cleared to play. He then would suffer a setback that put him on the shelf longer just as he seemed to be ramping up to play again.
He was out again to start the 2023 season, doing drills on the side but not yet rejoining the team. But his moment would come.
He returned against the Boston Celtics on Jan. 22, 2023. It was a triumphant moment for Isaac to be sure as he stepped onto the court and scored 10 points to go with three rebounds and two steals in 11 minutes. It looked like Isaac had not lost too much of a step or much of his defensive impact.
Isaac played in only 11 games, however. He was shut down on Feb. 23 with a torn left adductor muscle that required surgery. That brief month gave a tantalizing glimpse of Isaac’s return but was ultimately another false start.
"“I’ve always known that no matter what happens, I know the player that I am,” Isaac said. “If I can just get my butt on the floor, then I’m going to be OK. And in my head, I will be OK. To have gone through a full summer of being able to play and being able to bang, I feel better now than I did even in that stint of 10 or 11 games. I’m excited, I’m ready, the team is ready. Why not us?”"
Echoing the rallying cry of the 1995 Orlando Magic is a nice, if unintentional callback for the team’s 35th anniversary.
Isaac had a nice run last year in his limited minutes, ultimately averaging 5.0 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game and 1.7 “stocks” per game in just 11.3 minutes per game. He shot 22 of 53 from the floor (41.5 percent) overall and 6 for 15 (40.0 percent) from three.
More importantly, he did not appear to lose much of a step defensively. He made an immediate defensive impact even in that debut game against the Celtics.
For the season, the Magic had a 107.7 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. That was 2.6 points per 100 possessions better than the team’s average during the stretch of games he played. Overall, the Magic were only better defensively with Goga Bitadze on the floor.
Still, the sample size is incredibly small. And the offense suffered with Isaac out there as he got his legs under him. He still showed flashes of his offensive potential with a solid 3-point percentage and the re-emergence of his turnaround fadeaway in the post.
There is something to build on provided he gets more time and the chance to play.
The good news is that Isaac was quickly back on the court after about six weeks following his latest surgery. The surgery he underwent was termed “minor” and appeared to be so. He has been playing with his teammates in pickup runs in preparation for the season and appears set to join camp with few restrictions.
"“We’ll be very cognizant of how he [Isaac] is loaded up and how we’re unfolding his minutes,” president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman said at media day. “That’s obviously more of a question for our performance staff and for Arnie Kander than anything I can give you. We will be protective of Jonathan’s health and rolling him out the right way. He will be a full participant in camp.”"
Isaac said he was unaware of any restrictions the Magic might have for him medically entering this season. There surely will be a few bumps in the road.
For the first time in three years though, Isaac can focus on playing basketball. He will undoubtedly be part of what is expected to be an intense internal competition for minutes. But Isaac has an advantage there too as one of the few plus-sized wings on the roster.
He appears set to line up as the backup power forward playing behind Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner — and possibly with them in super versatile lineup groups.
Isaac’s potential as a pterodactyl on defense and a big scorer is still ever-present even after all these years.
Now he can just focus on playing.
"“For myself, just to showcase everything that I have,” Isaac said. “I know everyone knows me as a defensive player and phenom. I feel that I have so much more to offer just from a versatility standpoint on the offensive end and just as a leader. I’m excited. I know you guys know I’ll be ready to lock up on day one. I’m ready for that journey.”"
At long last, Isaac is ready for that journey. He is now the longest-tenured player on the team. He has been through the peaks and valleys a franchise goes through. That experience will be valuable as will his perspective — Jalen Suggs said Jonathan Isaac was instrumental in helping get him through his own injury struggles early in his career including thanking Isaac for baptizing him and helping him reconnect with his faith.
Isaac will be among the players the team will look to step up for some leadership as they continue to grow and develop. Despite his lack of playing experience the last three years, he has been through the journey the team is preparing to go through.
Now, at long last, he will get to share that journey. If all things go well, Isaac will play a big part of it. At long last, Isaac is cleared to play.