Jonathan Isaac was not sure if he would play the second night of a back-to-back when the Orlando Magic traveled from Brooklyn to Chicago.
Isaac has had to be patient as he returns from a hamstring injury that cut short his comeback season last year. The Magic have been expectedly cautious with him. His minutes have slowly ramped up and back-to-backs were seen as a last hurdle.
So it came to Wednesday’s game in Chicago. Isaac told the medical staff and the coaching staff he was feeling good. and as Jonathan Isaac put it, coach Jamahl Mosley gave the go-ahead to try and see what Isaac could handle.
It is safe to say Isaac can handle it.
Jonathan Isaac has seen his minutes and role increase in recent games as his defensive impact returns and he gets his offensive rhythm back.
Everyone knows what Isaac is capable of. But even as he starts to get his legs back under him and his shot, Isaac is making a major impact on defense. He has looked like he has not missed a beat.
More impressively, he has been unafraid to mix things up physically, jumping in at center and defending centers while outmuscling and skying for rebounds.
Defensive energy and intensity stand out — especially on a team like this. And Isaac has stood out.
"“You watched it. Defenisvely he is so special,” Mosley said after Friday’s game. “The fact he is finding the right space on the floor to step into his shots. His teammates are trusting him and finding him. defensively what he does I can’t emphasize it enough and praise him enough for what he does defensively for this team.”"
The proof is in the numbers too.
The Magic have a 94.9 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. No other regular bench player has a defensive rating better than 108 (Joe Ingles checks in at 108.1). That speaks to how well the team defends with Isaac on the floor.
That is just who he is. It is what he did before his injury and the biggest thing that Isaac has been able to recover quickly since his return.
There is still a lot for him to learn and gain. And Isaac is finding his impact from there.
"“I definitely feel like I’m getting more comfortable out there,” Isaac said after Friday’s game. “Learning my teammates, learning where I’m going to play, know where I’m going to be on defense it’s starting to come together. I know inside of myself there is still some ways to go. But I’m taking things one game at a time.”"
If it seems like Isaac is still working to get his legs under him, he would agree with that. And unlike the starting group that has a lot of familiarity and continuity, the bench group has seen some changes. And Isaac is part of that considering he had not been a regular player since the 2020 season. Only Markelle Fultz remains from that team.
So Isaac has had to learn where he can get his space. That has sometimes meant Isaac is taking the green light to shoot and find where he belongs. There has been a lot of adjusting for this team early in the season.
Still, this run of play and the two games against the Bulls represented a major step in his recovery.
He scored only four points in Wednesday’s win over the Chicago Bulls but had seven rebounds and made a consistent defensive impact, changing and blocking shots with regularity.
That all culminated with perhaps his best overall game since returning from his injuries last year Friday night.
Isaac scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds, adding three offensive rebounds and hitting 2 of 4 3-pointers. He had a run particularly early in the fourth quarter when he was gobbling up rebounds and out maneuvering a center like Andre Drummond to get to the glass.
It was just an overall impact in the paint — he blocked a DeMar DeRozan mid-range jumper for good measure and then turned that into an alley-oop dunk:
There is still a lot of work for Isaac to find full comfort. But he is getting there.
For the season, Isaac is averaging 6.4 points per game on 38.5 percent shooting overall and 27.6 percent from three. He is still working to get his footing back offensively and finding his shot. He has often been shooting pretty freely to try to get his rhythm and his fit in the offense settled.
His value comes on defense of course. There he is averaging 4.3 rebounds per game and 2.4 “stocks” (steals and blocks) per game. That is just a hint of what he is providing this team on defense.
This is still a learning process for him as he gets himself back into rhythm.
"“Just trusting it. I know that I’m a great shooter,” Isaac said after Friday’s game. “A lot of times it’s just me getting comfortable. Even I’m so used to being so on my toes playing defensively that sometimes I’m the same way on offense. When I can just take a breath and relax and let the shot go more times than not it goes in.”"
Isaac has certainly been overeager. Who could blame him after having to wait so long to get back onto the court?
But it is clearer and clearer the Magic want him out there for everything that he does. The team has started putting him in at center at the end of games, just betting on his defensive impact and rim protection and allowing them to switch every screen. It is faith in Isaac and everything everyone knew he could be once he was healthy again.
It is just harder and harder to keep him off the court. And his teammates have faith in him too.
"“The stuff he does on that court — and it’s limited minutes too — is amazing,” Gary Harris said after Friday’s game. “He’s active, he’s getting steals, blocks, rebounds, tip dunks, he’s hitting the threes. He’s a tremendous player. He’s definitely huge for us and we’re happy to have him back healthy. With him on the court, I’m very confident in our defense. He’s our defensive anchor. And we still have guys out right now. We can be a very scary team defensively especially when everybody is healthy.”"
That is the bigger thing. The Magic are looking forward to the future too. A future where Isaac has put a lot of these injury concerns behind him and performances defensively like he had these past two nights are the norm.
Isaac is an impact player for this team and has seemingly recovered at least the defensive impact that made him such a special player before all the injuries slowed him down. He has regained that impact at least. The rest is still coming.