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Jonathan Isaac and the third year surge

Can Isaac take a leap similar to that of the Raptors’ Pascal Siakam?

NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Magic have something. A bundle of long limbs. A ball of feverish energy. An unpolished hound. A tantalizing mix of potential. Even if it isn’t yet totally clear how the individual characteristics will coalesce, they definitely have something.

That something — or, more accurately, someone — is Jonathan Isaac.

The third-year forward out of Florida State stepped up in his second campaign after an injury-interrupted rookie year, playing 75 games and establishing himself as a valuable piece of the starting unit. There were also flashes of genuine game-changing play, understandably infrequent yet undoubtedly inspiring.

One of the keys for Orlando during this coming season will be the performance of Isaac. As one of the players with the greatest chance of growth, the team’s ability to improve on last year’s playoff cameo may just hinge on his ability to emerge as a reliable difference-maker.

Has he got what it takes? Is there a third year jump in store? Let’s assess the likelihood.


NBA: Playoffs-Toronto Raptors at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Since day one Isaac has passed the eye test as someone who belongs on an NBA court. Defensively he’s looked at home, comfortable as both the primary defender in an on-ball match-up and as the secondary help only a rotation away. He can alter shots, jam up passing and driving lanes, sag and recover, slide around screens, and effectively challenge attempts at the rim. He’s a handful for any match up 2 through 5, and is basically already a lock to make an All-Defensive team before it’s all said and done.

Even if Isaac plateaus as a defensive presence he’s going to remain incredibly good at that end of the floor. And although he looks like a natural when clamping down, it’s with the ball in hand that hesitation is evident in those who might otherwise predict stardom. He’s slightly hesitant as a shooter, and doesn’t yet have the ability to put the ball on the floor and create his own points. Teams sag way off him, taking away space and opportunities closer to the hoop. However, he does have a nice transition game and showed enough during his sophomore campaign to suggest that offensively the best is yet to come.

Isaac’s improvements in year two weren’t just a function of more minutes. In most cases the per-game averages rose, but more importantly he also saw a bump in the advanced metrics that measure possession to possession impact. In 2018/19 he was more likely to score a bucket, get to the free throw line, record an assist, and snag a rebound. His two-point field goal percentage rose considerably, while his three-point percentage remained relatively steady despite his getting up more than twice as many attempts per game. He was using more possessions while also more frequently ending them more cleanly. JI was also slightly more likely to put points on the board without requiring an assist, a small indication of a growing confidence in his own offensive game.

These are all obviously small steps in the right direction. But what’s it going to take for a giant leap?

Looking North

NBA: Preseason-Orlando Magic at Atlanta Hawks Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Magic fans don’t have to look far for a potential analogy when predicting bigger things for Isaac in 2019/20. Last season’s playoff opponent in Canada have a player on their roster who may have already established an ascension that Orlando’s third-year wing can emulate: Pascal Siakam.

In his third season, Toronto’s young forward emerged as one of the team’s most important pieces, a regular season multitool and playoff problem that had to be addressed by opposing coaches. On a side with some significantly higher-profile teammates he did a little bit of everything, scoring efficiently with the ball in hand while playing lockdown defense at the other end. He generated some decent All-Star buzz and rightfully so.

Could Siakam’s trajectory be one that Isaac follows, or is perhaps already on? Let’s dig into the numbers and find out.

Apples to apples to oranges

Orlando Magic v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

To those watching the games last season, it was obvious that the third-year version of Siakam was a different player. More confident. More aggressive. More of a presence from play to play. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main difference was that he took a leap on offense, while his already established defensive reputation mean that even a slight dip in effectiveness at this end of the court wasn’t enough to dim the perception.

Specifically, Siakam’s greatest leap was in terms of opportunities and shooting accuracy. He played 31.9 minutes per game (up from 20.7), tossing up 11.8 field goal attempts per game (up from 6.1) and using 20.8% of his team’s total possessions (up from 15.7%). One of the reasons he was being asked to shoulder so much more of the offensive load was because of his vastly improved efficiency. Siakam added more than 7 percentage points to his true shooting percentage (.628) on the back of 37% three-point shooting and a free-throw rate of .320. Both of these rates were more than 150% of the previous season’s marks, and almost single handedly explain how he pushed himself into a new tier of performance.

So the question now becomes whether or not such a jump is possible for Isaac. A comparison of second year data between both players reveals a number of similarities, a fact which should fuel optimism in Magic fans. In terms of traditional box score stats both the per-36 minutes and per-100 possessions figures could, essentially, be reflections of the same player. The point, shot attempt, rebound and steal totals are all within a whisker of each other, with Isaac actually revealing himself as being more likely to get a shot up.

However, there are some obvious differences that will ultimately make it difficult for Isaac to replicate Siakam’s leap. The Toronto forward consistently shot a better clip from the field during his first two seasons, not dropping below 50% on either of his first two campaigns. Siakam has also taken a much greater number of attempts at the rim, with shots inside of 3 feet accounting for more than 45% of his total attempts. By comparison, Isaac has never taken more than 30% of his shots from this distance. His looks are coming from further away, where he shoots a less efficient and more variable percentage. Increasing the number of attempts isn’t going to buoy his scoring in a manner as efficient as his Canadian counterpart.

Perhaps the most interesting number in Siakam’s ascension is his three point shooting percentage. As mentioned, his third-year conversion rate rose to almost 37%, an unexpected and unforecastable jump for someone who previously had been abhorrent from deep. He was a non-shooter during his rookie season (only 7 attempts total), and a terrible one as a sophomore (just 22% on 1.6 attempts per game). To leap to a figure above league average on a significantly increased number of attempts ultimately unlocked his game, even if it was a projection no one could confidently have made coming into the season.

How does Isaac stack up in this regard? Well, the good news is that comparatively he’s already a much better shooter than Siakam was at the same point. Across his first two seasons his accuracy from deep has hovered around 33%, and he’s also been much more prolific in terms of attempts: 1.7 per game as a rookie and then 3.5 per game last season. He’s getting a good number of attempts from the corner (38% of his total three-point attempts for his career) while his trigger from above the break has become slightly more fluent and automatic. There’s a growing confidence to his outside shot, and like Siakam a leap here could be the key to him becoming recognised as a true impact player.

Still, it’s going to require opportunity for such an outcome to eventuate in any capacity. As a starter on a team with playoff aspirations he routinely finds himself as the fifth option, a player whose offense is a result of taking what’s on offer as opposed to careful play action that seeks him out. Vooch is an incumbent All-Star, Fournier has the coach’s confidence as a go-to scorer, and AG is looking to bust out himself. There are a lot of mouths to feed. And yet, Siakam is a model of how it’s possible. Even on a squad filled with veteran teammates (Lowry, Ibaka) and an influx of new talent (Leonard, Gasol, Green) he was still able to carve out the space necessary to take the next step as a player because his talent -- potential realised as production -- was undeniable.

Ultimately, that’s what will serve as the determining factor in this scenario: evidence of talent positively impacting games. If Isaac proves capable of making a leap on offense -- like Siakam did before him -- more chances will come his way. He just has to prove that he deserves them.

The Magic have a lot invested in Isaac’s development. Draft capital, time, and effort, obviously, but it’s more than just that. To project stardom for JI is to understand what the franchise values and how the relevant decision makers envision the team playing. A defensive menace who can both finish at the rim and bomb away from deep. An eminently switchable ballhawk and a versatile scorer. A whole heap of wingspan.

The ball hasn’t yet tipped on the season, but it’s already feeling like Orlando will only take the next step as a team once Isaac has taken one himself. It’s time to put that length to good use.