Jonathan Isaac ramping up again, making impact despite slow injury return

Jonathan Isaac makes a measurable and clear impact for the team. But the Magic's slow injury approach has blunted that impact. Will the patience pay off in March and April?

Jonathan Isaac has seen his minutes start to ramp up as he played a key role for the Orlando Magic in their comeback effort against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Jonathan Isaac has seen his minutes start to ramp up as he played a key role for the Orlando Magic in their comeback effort against the Memphis Grizzlies. / Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
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When Jonathan Isaac is on the floor, you always notice.

It is not merely his size and presence on the floor. With Isaac hovering in the paint, everyone knows where he is and whether he is hunting for a block. All eyes are on him.

It feels like all eyes are always on him, mostly to figure out if he will play or not.

When he plays, he is energetic and everywhere. Isaac is a true terror on the court.

Just ask Jaren Jackson Jr. at the end of Friday's game. On a critical possession with the Magic needing to make up ground, Isaac got the call to stop Jackson Jr. and stonewalled him three times at the rim. He was not officially credited with a block, but that is what Isaac brings to the team.

Wendell Carter cleaned up the block to help the Magic secure possession. But after an entire evening of struggling to slow down Jackson Jr. (he had 30 points in the game), Isaac delivered a pair of huge defensive stops.

It was another sign of why Isaac is so important to this team. And how eager everyone is to get the Magic to loosen restrictions on him and let him loose.

His slow return to the court has turned out to be an example of the Magic's slow approach to helping players return from injury, an often frustrating one for fans with little information on players' actual status and caution as they ramp players back up to full speed. Nobody yet knows if that patience will get rewarded.

Ultimately, the Magic's approach has been about helping players return for the long term so they can be at their peak and healthy by the time March and April roll around.

Right now, it is the starting and stopping that seems to be holding Isaac back.

Getting him out on the court has been a struggle. Isaac has again dealt with injuries that have prevented him from blossoming fully. It is again the struggle that defines his career and once again defines his season.

But the Magic are constantly looking for a long-term solution and a lasting presence from Isaac. It is the approach the Magic have had with a lot of their long-term injured players.

"This is a young man that's working his way back into playing full go," coach Jamahl Mosley said after the Orlando Magic's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers last week. "And that's what we have to continue to be smart with. How they respond back to games being played and him being out for a while. We want to be smart about that. And we'll continue to ramp it up slowly. But being smart about how we go about doing it."

Isaac has had a bit of a roller coaster. And his journey is certainly unique among the Magic's injured players. But the experience is not wholly unique. It is one of caution and patience, even as the Magic have struggled to win in the process.

Since returning from his last prolonged absence -- missing 10 games with right hamstring soreness -- Isaac played in five games before sitting out the second night of a back-to-back Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

That game happened to be the worst defensive performance of the season. It is surely a coincidence that Isaac missed the game.

Isaac's defensive presence remains his greatest output for the team.

The Magic have a 100.5 defensive rating with Isaac on the floor, the best mark among regular rotation players. The Magic have a +11.9 net rating, which is also the best mark among rotation players.

The Magic know they have to find a way to get him on the court as much as they can.

"He does an excellent job," Mosley said after the loss to the Hawks last week. "I think he does a great job protecting the rim, changing up who he can guard. He can guard 1 through 5, disruption at the rim, sitting down and contesting shots, impacting all shots. He came up with some big steals down there. I think he does an excellent job for us. I think he is a game-changer for us defensively."

Isaac has played limited minutes -- just 13.5 minutes per game. As several fans pointed out, Isaac played only 9:51 in that loss to the Hawks despite two steals and tons of defensive energy.

The Magic have been careful bringing Isaac back from injury throughout this process. But everyone wants more with the playoff pressure ramping up at the season's midpoint.

Friday then represented something of a breakthrough for him. Isaac played 22:09 and closed the game for the Magic. It represented the first time Isaac played more than 20 minutes in a game this season and his first time clearing 20 minutes since Dec. 30, 2019 (before his original knee injury).

Isaac was solid, too, scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds. Perhaps this game lets loose some of those restrictions and gives him and the team confidence in his return.

The question is whether this will build to Isaac becoming a more permanent fixture for the team.

"I'm getting there," Isaac said after Friday's game. "I think tonight was close to the most minutes I've played. Talking with coach and figuring out who I'm coming along and what's going to be the direction. I just tell him I'm ready to go and I'm going to continue to take it one game at a time. It's getting better and I just try my best to be that defensive stanchion for this team."

Isaac undoubtedly does that part. And everyone is eager to see him do more. That is the anticipation everyone has. Those are the restrictions fans want the team to release.

It is certainly a challenge to bring so many players back from nagging and long-term injuries virtually simultaneously. Orlando wants players ready to go for the long haul. They are preparing for April and the playoffs. And that approach has them cautious right now.

At some point, the Magic will have to let those players go. They will have to trust these players are healthy and able to handle the rigors of the season. And that is especially true for Isaac, even with his long list of injuries.

The Magic know they have to find their rhythm together again with all of these players coming back. It is still a process of figuring out how players are feeling and what they can handle. One that still takes constant communication with players.

"We all know what everyone goes through being out," Markelle Fultz said after Sunday's win over the Miami Heat. "The mental part of it, the physical part of it, the wanting to help your brothers, especially when you feel like they can help. When you start to see guys work their way back with the work they do off the court to get back on the court, you have a respect for it. And number two, you are just excited to see them back."

The Magic are indeed excited to have so many of those players back. They are still getting everyone back into the swing of things.

That is especially true for someone like Isaac. It is about building trust and consistency. At a certain point, it is about coming out and playing.

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The Magic hope this stage of the injury recovery process is ending and the team can finally use its full roster.