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Analyzing Jonathan Isaac’s fit on the Magic

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Isaac has one of the highest upsides of any player in the draft, but realizing that potential could be a challenge on this roster

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Florida State vs Xavier Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For new Orlando Magic executives Jeff Weltman and John Hammond, their picking Jonathan Isaac sixth overall in the 2017 NBA Draft continues their draft histories of taking athletic players with plenty of upside. Unless you were truly in love with Frank Ntilikina’s potential despite all the unknowns that come with drafting an international player, Isaac was probably the highest upside option on the board when the Magic were on the clock.

In my preview, I wrote that I wasn’t as interested in Isaac because I wasn’t sold on his All-Star potential. That’s not because I doubt his ceiling, which is certainly sky-high. It was more a statement on the likelihood of reaching that ceiling, something complicated by Orlando’s particular roster situation.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I like Isaac a lot as a player. Orlando could absolutely use versatile defenders, especially in a modern NBA where guarding multiple positions is more valuable than ever. He shares a lot of those athletic and defensive virtues with Aaron Gordon, and he’s arguably more offensively developed than Gordon was coming out of college.

Isaac’s most natural position in the NBA might be a small-ball power forward, using his scoring off the bounce to thrive in a fast-paced system while hopefully developing his spot-up game. There’s just one problem: the Magic sort of have one of those guys already. It should be abundantly clear after last season that Gordon should exclusively play as a power forward, at least offensively, or maybe a super-small-ball center if you’re really feeling creative.

The biggest question for Isaac and the Magic, then, is whether these two players can co-exist. For the first season, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Actually, bringing in Isaac works out pretty nicely, since the Magic didn’t really have a great option at the backup-4. He can spell Gordon while still offering a lot of the same strengths.

The long term fit is more complicated. Is it possible for Gordon and Isaac to play together, to share court time without compromising the offense? We posed the question to Twitter:

Some of you thought it was a non-issue, and some of you thought picking him was a colossal blunder, but the most fascinating responses were the group of you who said Isaac should play small forward, while an equally large number suggested he’d play center. Those wildly different answers are, in many ways, the perfect encapsulation of Isaac’s mysterious potential.

The easy solution to this problem is just for Isaac to become a good 3-point shooter. Everything falls into place at that point: Isaac plays small forward on offense, opportunistically looking for chances to score off the bounce or on spot-ups. On defense, he and Gordon form the foundation of a switching defensive monster, each capable of swapping onto any player from 1-to-4 when necessary.

Of course, it’s a little too convenient to suggest Isaac will definitely pick up 3-point accuracy. On a shooting-deficient roster like this one, it’s more likely that he’ll struggle from long-range for a couple seasons, barring surprising improvement from his new teammates. If Isaac turns out to be a mediocre 3-point shooter, things get a lot more complicated.

In that case, we move onto the Isaac-as-center scenario, but that requires some developmental assumptions, too. At just 210 pounds, Isaac is way too thin to play that position right now, even in a small-ball-happy league. He’s going to have to add a lot of strength (something he acknowledged in his first post-draft interview), probably regardless of the position he plays, but especially if he’s going to fulfill the big man role.

If he can handle that role, though, Isaac becomes a very intriguing anchor option for the team. The Ringer laid out the case for players like Isaac as the new archetype for dynamic centers in the mold of Draymond Green, and it would certainly give the Magic an angle they’ve lacked since the Dwight Howard days, an aggressive weapon from the center position, albeit in somewhat different form.

Nikola Vucevic has his merits as a midrange shooter and post player (last season excepted), but aside from a legendary dunk on Pau Gasol he’s not exactly known for his ability to attack a closeout or take people off the bounce. If Isaac can do that while protecting the rim and switching pick-and-rolls, the Magic have the makings of a scary small-ball attack on both ends of the court. Throw in a respectable level of long-range shooting, and they really do have the makings of another Draymond Green on their hands.

Still, let’s say this doesn’t work out either. If Isaac can’t shoot well enough to play the three and doesn’t develop enough strength to plausibly play significant minutes at the five, what happens then? At that point, the Magic really run into problems. I don’t know if Orlando can put two combo-forward non-shooter types on the court at the same time and hope to have anything better than the bottom-of-the-barrel offense they’ve trotted out the last few years.

On a more general level, Isaac’s fit is also a little tough because he doesn’t necessarily project as a high-usage scorer, the type of player who could be the straw that stirs the Magic’s drink. Fitting in, letting the offense come to him, and attacking opportunistically are nice qualities for a role player, but the Magic have too many guys being forced into high-usage roles already. Will he become the transformational force the Magic need to make the team come together, or will he just become another cog in a broken machine?

Fortunately, I don’t expect that Isaac’s going to be a total bust, far from it. In fact, a lot of analytical methods suggest that Isaac checks a lot of the boxes you’d want from either a small forward or a power forward: good steal and block rates, solid rebounder, and decent percentages from 2, 3, and the line. ESPN Analytics even rated him their #1 draft prospect, and a potential steal of the draft. They compared him to Otto Porter’s stat profile coming out of college, and while things were rough for Porter for a couple years, he’s come around as an integral member of the Washington Wizards, likely on his way to a max extension. Checking those same boxes is a big part of why I liked Jayson Tatum so much, so if I’m being fair to Isaac I can’t ignore his potential here.

In many ways, then, maybe this was the right move to make. After all, if it works out, he could really change the way the Magic play, and that’s the kind of potential they’re looking for. If he meets these lofty expectations, Orlando could finally be on the way to making sense in a way they haven’t for a long time. That development will be the difference between muddying and clarifying this bizarre team.