Jonathan Isaac's new expanded role will change the Orlando Magic

Jonathan Isaac's minutes are increasing and expanding as the Orlando Magic put more faith in the oft-injured forward. That decision has changed the team and unlocked some new potential.
Jonathan Isaac's role is expanding and growing as he gets healthier. And that is making a major impact for the Orlando Magic.
Jonathan Isaac's role is expanding and growing as he gets healthier. And that is making a major impact for the Orlando Magic. / Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

There were questions about Jonathan Isaac's health during the past several seasons.

There were questions about how the Orlando Magic were handling his injuries and whether it was the right way to bring him back from his series of knee and hamstring injuries. Whether or not the minute restrictions were going to pay off. Or even if we would see Isaac play 20 minutes in an NBA game again.

Things have changed dramatically in the past week. These questions are being answered, and Isaac is playing well enough that he is carving a critical role for this team.

It has been a long journey to get back to this point.

Isaac first suffered his original injury on Jan. 1, 2020. He returned during the Bubble in August 2020 only to tear his ACL in the quiet stadium two games into the experiment.

He would continue to suffer an injury-riddled path, missing two seasons recovering from the ACL and then requiring hamstring surgery after his brief return last year. Orlando has been notably cautious ever since, even with a clean bill of health this season.

While his past is important, that is not what the focus is now. The Magic have finally begun to unleash Isaac, and it is paying dividends for the Magic.

Isaac has appeared in 32 of the Magic's 50 games this season. He has recorded 6.2 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game, 0.8 steals per game and 1.2 blocks per game. He has averaged 14.5 minutes per game.

His minutes have been a point of much debate.

Isaac started the season on a 15-minute restriction. But he also would have games where he would not see 10 minutes. The reason was always the same: Injury management.

Coach Jamahl Mosley stressed it would be about the bigger picture with Isaac. And understanding Isaac's past, it was reasonable to see why Orlando was taking the slow path.

It was frustrating, however, not only because we understand how badly Isaac wanted to be on the floor. But in his limited minutes, Isaac has been very good and is considered a game-changer.

Isaac's counting stats do not jump off the page. He is still figuring out where to get his offense consistently. Based on his career numbers (32.6 percent), he is likely to improve.

But Isaac's impact is on the defensive end. In addition to his 2.0 "stocks" per game in 14.5 minutes per game, the Magic have a 97.6 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor. No other regular rotation player has a defensive rating better than 106.0.

His impact is also felt off of the stat sheet. Being the havoc creator he is, getting into passing lanes and protecting the rim. Jonathan Isaac has the aura that Dwight Howard had on the defensive end of the court.

Lately, the impact has been felt now that there have been changes in the rotation.

For the first time in three years, Isaac played more than 20 minutes during the Jan. 26 game against the Memphis Grizzlies and has done so twice since then.

The Magic have kept the same starting lineup of Markelle Fultz, Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Paolo Banchero and Wendell Carter. But lately, the Magic have finished games with Isaac rather than Fultz. In a small sample size, the lineup has raised eyebrows.

Isaac makes it possible for the whole thing to work, though. His ability to defend in the paint and on the perimeter gives the Magic the versatility they have long sought.

Now the Magic are just figuring out how to expand his usage and make the most of his extended minutes.

The Magic's big closing lineup has a 114.3 offensive rating and a 97.9 defensive rating for a +16.4 net rating in 22 minutes across six games.

The Magic will continue to gather more information on the group. But the eye test says this may be the best group the Magic can put onto the floor.

Defensively, Orlando can switch everything and is elite defensively at every position with no weak spot. If Isaac can hit open shots, then there is little to no reason that the Magic should go away from this lineup.

The question is whether or not his role will continue to change. It is already challenging to keep Isaac off the floor. What more is there for him?

Isaac's minutes may continue to increase as the team continues to push him physically. He is still not fully playing in back-to-backs. The Magic are undoubtedly willing to put him in critical situations.

If the lineup continues to play at this level, there will be no reason to keep Isaac out of the starting lineup when it matters most. This group can set the tone and close out games with an elite defense.

Isaac is the reason such a lineup works. And his defense is returning to its elite status.

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The most important thing about this path toward the future is that Isaac remains healthy.