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NBA Summer League: ‘The Ringer’ may have anointed Jonathan Isaac, but Mo Bamba has shown higher upside

Jonathan Isaac continues to flash his elite defensive size and length, but Mo Bamba is the one taking the lead.

NBA: Summer League-Brooklyn Nets at Orlando Magic Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Tjarks of the Ringer is already touting Isaac as the breakout player who could eventually bring the Orlando Magic back into playoff relevance: “The Magic have spent the past six seasons trying to find a franchise player amid a sea of raw teenagers. They may have finally found one in Jonathan Isaac.”

Isaac certainly looks the part. At 6’11, with 7’1 wingspan, and the willingness to attack off the dribble, he could even elicit some comparisons to Kevin Durant. To National Media contributors and ‘blog boys,’ Isaac hits all the check marks when watching a late night ESPN recap. But those watching the games see the same offensive mistakes the FSU product committed last season:

  • Continues to have trouble maintaining his handle in playmaking situations
  • Make the wrong play in transition and force the envelope
  • Poor floor awareness -- Ie. getting too deep on drives at time

In his defense, he’s just a young player who is trying to improve his overall game.

“That’s just me trying to stay aggressive and grow my offensive game.” -- Isaac gave this quote when asked about his penchant for driving off the dribble from the three-point line in one-on-one situations.

But those close to the team will tell you that this isn’t something the coaches have preached.

“We don’t have one-on-one players on this team.” – Frank Vogel said late last season.

Jonathan Tjarks will have you believe this is the time for young man to make those mistakes and learn from them. But only three months ago Shelvin Mack, DJ Augustin, and Aaron Gordon often lamented the team’s lack of trust in one another and ball movement.

Instead of learning from bad habits, the Magic need to be practicing the right ones: making the right reads, learning to create separation and capitalize off of it, and relying on IQ and game preparation instead of raw talent.

Rather than continuing the movement, and keeping the offense fluid, the Magic continue to find themselves playing isolation basketball, wasting the shot clock, contributing to contested shots and inefficiency. The performance was particularly shocking on Monday night as the squad shot just 3/20 from three, 17/56 overall, with Isaac scoring on just 2/9 shots. Isaac has scored on only 35% of his shots this month.

In all honesty, the 2018 Summer League Magic look remarkably similar to the 2017/18 Orlando Magic. Defensively, the team has all the potential to be a juggernaut. With their penchant for shot blocking in the paint with Isaac and Bamba, to their perimeter patrolmen in Wes Iwundu and Melvin Frazier Jr., the Magic combined for 22 steals and blocks on Monday night alone.

But offensively, the team remains a ‘construction area’ work in progress.

The game awareness has not come for the young man from Florida State, either. On one particularly egregious possession, Troy Caupain fielded his own rebound and found Wes Iwundu in the corner. Iwundu missed Rodas for the open three, dribbled around his opponent for the life of the shot clock before dishing to Isaac on the perimeter with three seconds remaining on the shot clock. Rather than force up a 23-foot three point shot, Isaac dished to Antonio Campbell for a violation, and a turnover.

On multiple possessions, Isaac found a path to the basket, and missed the right play. Instead of drawing the defense and distributing, or pulling up for his mid range shot (beautiful by the way), he forced his way into the paint and into contact, attempting to use his length and athleticism.

Isaac has the measurables and the smooth looking stroke to be an All Star someday, but Isaac still has plenty to learn, and is hardly in position to break out in the 2018/19 season on the offensive side of the floor.

Mo Bamba, however, has impressed on both ends of the floor in his limited playing time.

Not only does Bamba routinely and calmly knock down 18-footers and corner three-point shots alike, he possesses the footwork, fundamentals, and game recognition of a young veteran. He remains patient with what the defense gives him, takes open jumpers, and backs down opponents from the elbow, before distributing under the net to a cutting Iwundu/Frazier.

Bamba has shown above average IQ and recognition on the offensive end of the floor for the Magic. While it is unlikely Clifford will start him this season, the building blocks of a franchise level player are already on full display in Las Vegas. And in terms of athletic ability, Bamba routinely defies gravity, often reaching his massive limbs to the top of the opponents backboard, making any floater far less than a sure thing.

Jonathan Isaac is only 25 games older than Bamba in NBA experience, but the early signs show that Bamba may have already leapfrogged the second year player. Don’t believe me? Just look at the numbers. Jonathan Isaac shot 7/17, 4/11, and 2/9 in three Summer League games in over 25 minutes per game. Mo Bamba has shot 5/8, 2/4, and 5/8 in just 20 minutes per game.

Jonathan Isaac has the potential to become a force in time for the Orlando Magic, but it’s far too early to anoint him as its central building block. It was just last year Aaron Gordon scored 18 points with seven rebounds per game, and the Magic expect even bigger things going forward from the dunk contest champion.

The first step for these three young cornerstones is to learn team basketball, practice the right habits, and follow the coaches instruction to create an offensive system that puts them in position to succeed. However, while we have just a smallest of sample sizes, Mo Bamba has already shown the ability to dominate on the defensive end, execute with efficiency on the offensive end, and not look overwhelmed or out of place on any part of the floor.