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Jonathan Isaac inching closer to return but still no timetable

The Magic will open the preseason Monday without their defensive specialist, who has missed the last two seasons

Orlando Magic Media Day Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The Orlando Magic return to the court tonight. Jonathan Isaac does not.

Isaac has not stepped onto the court for an NBA game over the last two seasons while recovering from a torn ACL suffered in August 2020 and a surgical procedure to repair a hamstring injury in March. When the Magic open the preseason on Monday against the Memphis Grizzlies - coincidentally on Isaac’s 25th birthday - they again will be without their 6-foot-11 defensive specialist.

Isaac will be on the court at training camp for non-contact drills, but when he is able to partake in five-on-five and ultimately play in his first regular-season game since Aug. 2, 2020 remains unclear.

“I feel fantastic,” Isaac said Monday during Media Day. “I feel the best that I’ve felt through this entire process. I’ve been telling everybody, I’m running, I’m jumping, I’m playing one-on-one, I’m doing all these things and finally, we’re ready to kind of just really start putting it all together and ramping this thing up. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Problem is, Isaac had the same message and tone at 2021 Media Day this time last year. Actions speak louder than words, but there has been little to no action on the court for Isaac and few definitive words when it comes to his recovery from the organization beyond the expected Orlando Magic buzzwords like “ramp up” and “his return to play will depend on how he responds to rehabilitation.”

“Jonathan will be integrated slowly,” Magic president of basketball operations said during Media Day. “He’s still doing his individual rehabilitations so he won’t participate in a lot of the full-team live practice components. So, he’s still ramping up. I hate to sound like a broken record. I know that this has been a long process and, again, I just always harken back to his ability to remain focused in what’s been a really long ordeal of him. We’re hopeful to have him back during the season and I won’t put a timetable on that as usual. We want to give him the best possible space to get his work done.”

Problem is, Isaac had more than two year’s worth of time and space. Weltman said there have been no setbacks, yet he still cannot definitively say that Isaac will play this season.

Isaac said there are no more hurdles to clear and he is 100 percent recovered, but there is no specific timeline for his return.

“We’ve kind of hit these different points of like the sprinting work, the jumping work, the body contact work and now it’s time to really put it all together with the way that we’re working out,” Isaac said. “Where it’s like you’re guarding this guy, then you’re on offense over here and you’re hitting this guy. Can you put it all together and do it enough to where we feel comfortable to let you out there? If it’s on me, I’m like, ‘I feel comfortable right now.’

“I think it’s just the way my body responds,” Isaac later added. “As we ramp this thing up, can I do it multiple days in a row of running, jumping, hitting, sprinting, dunking and be OK? Or is it gonna be two or three days out there and I need a break just based on how I’m feeling cause a lot of the stuff I haven’t done at game speed. So, I’m just excited to hear that word ‘game speed’ again and be ready to ramp to game speed.”

Added Weltman: “He continues to go from level to level in his rehabilitation process. It’s a very slow, painstaking process and obviously I don’t want to put a timetable on it because it’s just open ended. We just don’t know. And so, some of it is he has to put the work in and when that next level is reached, he’ll move up.”

Orlando Magic Media Day Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Isaac is entering the second year of a four-year, $70 million deal. Drafted sixth overall in the the 2017 NBA Draft, Isaac has played in just 136 games over the first five seasons of his career. He was in the midst of a potential breakout season when he first suffered a knee sprain on Jan. 1, 2020. He missed the next 31 games, but the NBA’s four-month hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic enabled Isaac to return that season. That return lasted just two games before Isaac suffered a torn ACL. He finished the season averaging 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds 2.3 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.

“In terms of going out there with a chip on my shoulder like I need to prove something, my game is my game,” Isaac said. “I know that I can still play at a high level, at a higher level than I’ve ever played at before. So, I’m gonna be ready to go. I’m excited to play. I’m excited to find out the player that I’m gonna be. I know that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what I can be in this league.”

The same can be said of this young Magic team overall.

“The lineups we’re going to be able to have this season are going to be scary, honestly, with the size and versatility, with the guys we have on this team,” Isaac said. “So, I’m just excited. For me, it’s just can we get to a mindset that is best related to us winning games. We have the pieces, we have the young core, we have all that stuff. Can we walk into games and believe that we can win? Are we gonna be the young kids on the block?”

“Talk is cheap,” he added. “We gotta go out there and put the work in and believe that we can beat these teams that are gonna roll in here and think that they’re just playing against the same old Orlando Magic. But it’s not happening.”