Every player coming into the NBA faces some sort of an adjustment.
Many times young players talk about the speed of the game, how much quicker the pace of play is, and how much of a challenge it can be to adjust. Many of those players get the chance to get acclimated to the speed of the game, and the difficulties of it at the highest level during their rookie season.
For the Orlando Magic’s Jonathan Isaac that simply was not the case.
Continued ankle problems limited the sixth overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to just 27 games in his inaugural season. In the brief stints Isaac was on the floor, he showcased just what he could do, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Now, in his second season, Isaac is beginning to settle in and find a little bit of a groove, despite continuing to battle those pesky ankles that have kept him sidelined so much.
After missing six games with a sprained ankle, Isaac returned to the lineup for the Magic in their win over the Philadelphia 76ers last Wednesday. While his numbers may not jump off the page — he had just four points, seven rebounds and two blocks on the night — his impact was felt almost immediately.
His ability to wreck havoc on the defensive end, and help protect the rim was showcased when he met Sixers All-Star center Joel Embiid right at the rim on a dunk attempt. As Embiid crashed to the floor, Isaac grabbed the ball out of mid-air and pushed it up the court with running mates Jonathon Simmons and Terrence Ross. Simmons found Ross on the wing for a wide open three, and the Magic’s frantic comeback from down 16 was complete, with them stealing the lead away 93-92.
The Magic would go on to knock off one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams 111-106.
Fast forward to Saturday night against the Los Angeles Lakers, and Isaacs’ presence was once again felt on the defensive end. This time against the best player in the world, and possibly of all time, LeBron James.
The rangy 6-foot-11 forward wrecked havoc on James, blocking a jumper, and teaming up with fellow shot blocker Mo Bamba for a rejection at the rim. Those were two of his career-high five blocks on the night.
Isaac’s play was part of what spearheaded the Magic taking control of the game in the second quarter, and never looking back. Magic coach Steve Clifford raved about his play on the defensive end following the game.
“He was right in the middle of that in the second quarter,” said Clifford. “His individual defense is really good, and his team defense is terrific. His instincts off the ball, and also his understanding of different coverages and what we’re trying to do is so good.”
Coming out of college, Isaacs’ tools as a defender were what man talked about. His ability to not only defend the painted area, but also switch at every position had teams league wide salivating.
On the other side of the ball, Isaac still has work to do. He’s shown flashes, most notably in the Magic’s wire-to-wire victory over the New York Knicks on Saturday night.
The second-year man did a little bit of everything, knocking down three pointers, cutting off the ball for thunderous dunks, and taking his man off the dribble for a key and-1 in the fourth quarter.
For the second night in a row, Isaac, who saw his minutes restriction grow on Sunday, made a profound impact on the team.
“He was in such a good rhythm before he got hurt,” said Clifford when asked about Isaacs’ progression on offense. “I think that every night he plays, he’s getting that back. His basic nature is he’s going to play for his teammates. If the shots there, he’ll shoot it. But, he’s a ball mover, he creates action for his teammates to play, which is why they all want to be on the floor with him.”
Isaac has shown a savviness that few second-year players show on the offensive end. Much like he does defensively, he always makes the right play at the right time, be it cutting off the ball, making the extra skip pass out to a teammate for an open jumper, or taking the shot himself.
“It’s getting better, and better comfortability wise,” said Isaac when asked about his progress offensively. “I’m getting more and more comfortable with each game, and that’s just my process. It’s going to be every game is going to challenge me to be better, to get better, to get in here and work. As I continue to do that, I’m going to be able to be more and more comfortable offensively.”
As he gets more time on the floor, it’s clear Isaac is becoming more and more comfortable. He brings something different to the table every night, and is finding ways to impact the game and help his team win.
Yet, even as he has made noticeable progress from even the beginning of this season, he still feels as though the game is slowing down for him.
“Definitely not already there,” he said. “From last year, definitely the games have slowed down. It’s getting easier to pick spots, or know when to cut or know when to do certain things.”
Right now Isaac is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential. He still has a ways to go, and that will come as the game continues to slow down for him.
If he’s able to stay healthy and continue to build off of his strong recent play, the Magic could be getting the guy they envisioned when they selected him sixth overall last summer sooner, rather than later.