Welcome to the fourth in an ongoing series for the 2018/19 season. In ‘An Evaluation of Eight’ I’ll be breaking the season into octagonal chunks, tracking the performance of a single player across eight-game stretches, as I did recently for Terrence Ross. We’ll be digging into the numbers and employing the eye test, with an emphasis on figuring out how what we’re seeing matches up with what we know. Eight games is only a small sample size, to be sure, but it should still be a useful exercise in identifying trends and evaluating progress. Let’s dive in.
When it comes to Orlando’s 2017 lottery selection it’s still a case of potential and promise. Sixth overall pick Jonathan Isaac hasn’t yet had the chance to showcase all that he can do, a fact owing to both injury and opportunity. His rookie season was plagued by recurring ankle problems, while his youthful status on the roster means that he’s a complementary and developmental piece at this stage of his career. Still, it doesn’t stop Magic fans from dreaming big about the type of player he could yet become.
The 2018-2019 season has been one of modest development for Isaac. He’s certainly not putting it all together on a consistent basis just yet, but there have been enough glimpses to suggest that he could eventually emerge as a valuable player in this league. His one-on-one defensive instincts remain excellent, while offensively there’s evidence of some intriguing growth if you squint hard enough. Across the last eight games, however, a real sense of fluctuation game-to-game has been evident. At times he’s been more visible in terms of his contributions and place in the rotation than ever before; at others, he vanishes. Let’s dive in and take a closer look at this most recent stretch of play.
vs. Toronto - 14 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks on 4-13 shooting
vs. Detroit - 4 points and 1 rebound on 1-4 shooting
at Charlotte - 11 points and 2 rebounds on 4-9 shooting
at Chicago - 7 points, 3 rebounds and 2 blocks on 2-5 shooting
at Minnesota - 10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 steals on 4-7 shooting
at LA Clippers - 2 points and 1 rebound on 1-7 shooting
at Sacramento - 2 points and 1 rebound on 1-6 shooting
at Utah - 9 points and 5 rebounds on 3-7 shooting
The Eye Test
Perhaps the most damning observation of Isaac’s play during the last eight games is that at times you barely notice that he’s on the court. He’s shown a worrying proclivity to drift through contests, unable to make an impact in any capacity when things aren’t going his way. Of late, that’s been often.
Scoring is an obvious area where his production is down, but the rot runs deeper. Despite playing roughly the same amount of minutes as he has all season, Isaac has less frequently tracked down rebounds, dished out an assist, blocked a shot, or swiped a ball. Interestingly, even his turnovers have dipped slightly when compared to some of his more effective stretches this season. This would seem to suggest that it’s his overall involvement in the game that has declined as opposed to any one responsibility or performance indicator. Put simply, the dude is in a funk.
He seemingly reached his nadir in back-to-back contests against the Clippers and Kings, failing to make any sort of impression on the box score despite almost 50 minutes of total gametime. An embarrassing shooting gaffe saw him hit the top of the backboard on a corner three attempt, after which he went into a shell never to return. It was the signature moment of a dispiriting slump, and a stretch that our own Mike Cali has already spent some time pondering.
Despite this the most recent game against the Jazz served as an interesting case study, and one that might shed some light on how to best use Isaac going forward. He was fantastic during the first half, opening the scoring for the Magic and looking little like the tentative wreck he had so recently been. Most offensive sets saw him start on the low block away from the play, where he could either pounce on back cut opportunities or spread to the sideline for the corner three. It was a simple assignment, but one that allowed him to read plays and take the game as it came to him. He was also active on the glass and defensively, getting his hands on a few rebounds and swatting one shot at the rim.
After the halftime oranges, however, something changed in terms of how the Magic deployed Isaac, and his output suffered as a result. Instead of lurking in the space on the weakside baseline he instead found himself more often than not operating at the top of the arc. From here he was expected to either turn the ball with a handoff, or shoot the open look after a kickout when the defense collapsed. Neither of these are strengths of his game, and he didn’t look particularly comfortable executing in this role. Worryingly, his effectiveness in other facets of the game also diminished. It seems that every aspect of his play waxes and wanes with his confidence.
For the time being Isaac is always going to be the fourth or fifth option on offense for Orlando. Although they’re not going to be running plays for him, it is still essential that Steve Clifford and the coaching staff put him in a position where he can be impactful. He probably won’t turn any games on their head with his play, but it could go a long way towards building the confidence and consistency that he so desperately needs.
Isaac has been shooting 40% from the field on the season, an already low number that has gone into further decline during this most recent stretch. Across the last eight contests he’s converted shots from the field at a rate of just 34%, including 32% from deep (a figure which is, terrifyingly, actually a touch higher than his season average!). More often than not he’s been able to get himself to the line once or twice a contest, but it’s not something that he can rely on to juice his scoring output. Overall, he’s averaging just 7.4 points, 3 rebounds, and 0.6 assists per game since December 28.
A look at his offensive rating during these games makes for a horror-laden experience. On four occasions he’s failed to raise this number to triple figures, including two absolute stinkers of 27 and 33 in the games against the Clippers and Kings, respectively. To put this into context: if the Magic had somehow found 100 shots for Isaac in Los Angeles, they would have had about 27 points to show for their trouble. It’s hard to quantify precisely how bad that is! His defensive numbers also haven’t been crash hot during this stretch, with only the wins against the Raptors and the Bulls producing individual defensive ratings below 100.
Poor shooting has, sadly, been a recurring theme on the season. Isaac takes the majority of his shots either within three feet of the rim or from behind the arc, and from each of these distances he’s currently converting at a clip worse than his rookie season. The likelihood of him making a shot at the rim has dropped almost 20% (from .814 to .621), while the long ball is down 7.4% on last year. At this point you can see the hesitation in his shooting motion when he finds himself with time and space, and it’s certainly not helping matters. His confidence is in tatters and it’s stymieing the fluidity of his decision making on the court.
While the shooting numbers certainly aren’t pretty, they also aren’t totally surprising; he was always expected to be a work-in-progress at this end of the court. The same, however, can’t be said of some of his defensive data. Isaac’s block and steal figures have taken a dip during this eight game stretch, with averages of just 1 block and only .75 steals a game. For a player who has already generated a bit of a reputation as a disruptive defensive presence these are unexpectedly low. A slightly deeper analysis also reveals that the frequency with which he’s recording blocks and steals are also both down this season when compared to last. It’s not just that his boxscore contributions in these areas have declined, but that there’s less likelihood of it happening at all.
These types of statistics tend to speak to energy and effort. Again, this would seem to correlate with the hesitation and tentativeness that has recently infiltrated his game; as he becomes more marginalized and ineffective on offense, so to do his defensive contributions suffer. In reality, though, this is the area that he has more direct control over and that he should be prioritizing in a bid to generate some momentum. Hopefully during the second half of the season Isaac can start to get back to his defensive strengths.
We all probably need to breathe for a moment and remind ourselves that Isaac is just 21 years old. He only has a grand total of 62 games worth of NBA experience, was always known to be a raw offensive experiment at this point, and is likely still overcoming the tentativeness that comes with the recovery from recurring injuries. He’s a long way from a finished product.
The last eight games haven’t exactly been a confidence boost for fans of the Magic who have a lot invested in the 2017 lottery talent. They also haven’t been a confidence boost for the player in question. Regardless, that seems to be exactly what he needs at this point of his development.
Let’s hope that in the weeks to come Isaac can locate the confidence that comes with individual growth and consistency.