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Bringing Back that Magic: The Present and Future of Jonathan Isaac

The uncertainty our universe is seemingly mired in is now more unavoidable than ever. Nobody is more the wiser to know what lies ahead, even in an organization as influential and lucrative as the NBA. However, not all is lost even as games are not played. 

When the season returns in some form, Jonathan Isaac will be ready to play basketball again for the first time since New Years Day, when fans were subject to the agonizing image of him crumpling to the floor after attempting a nearly flawless eurostep on Bradley Beal during a game against the Wizards. 

The results seemed ominous at best with him suffering a bone contusion in his left knee along with a posterolateral corner injury. The initial prognosis suggested the two most damning words to a rising star’s season, “out indefinitely”.

 The Magic, experiencing perhaps the most prototypical pyrrhic victory possible, would end up ousting the Wizards that night. From that point on, the Magic recuperated on a surprisingly even keel with a 15-16 record in their following 31 games registering a performance worthy of the eighth seed in the East.

With Isaac’s timeline guaranteeing him little-to-no hope of playing April postseason basketball, the Magic were simply shrapnel for an Eastern Conference heavyweight to blast away mercilessly. 

However, one of the most prominent consequences of the COVID-19 suspension was an extended timeline for the finality of the season, which is a benefit for a player like Isaac who can now safely rehab without adding risk of accelerating the process in order to get back on the court. 

In a Q&A session with Magic season ticket holders, Isaac indicated that he would like to play in the 2020 NBA postseason if health officials from the Magic give him the okay. It’s a significant boost that far from guarantees victory, but undoubtedly adds another wrinkle into scouting reports for prospective opponents.

Isaac has always been a tantalizing talent. The Bronx native’s combination of speed, length, and defensive intensity have developed since he entered the league three seasons ago. The three traits have combined harmoniously to create a defensive specimen unlike any that has been seen in recent memory. 

This season, Isaac has ranked in the 93rd and 97th percentiles, respectively, of block and steal percentages among big men. It is a sort of versatility that is remarkable as much as it is indispensable for an NBA team.

He is as reliable and alert defending off the ball as he is on it, and he can guard a wide variety of players both on the perimeter and down low at a high caliber. 

Since his first year in the league, Isaac has developed a more complete understanding of defensive concepts such as help-line positioning and pick-and-roll “icing” to turn his physical gifts into crucial assets for head coach Steve Clifford to deploy on any given night. 

Clifford, a widely respected coach and leader around the NBA, recently praised his defensive stalwart, 

“I haven’t seen a guy that’s improved more than him in the last year. He’s a major factor at both ends. I love the way he plays.” 

Some scouts may disagree with the second part of Clifford’s endorsement, as the general consensus seems to be that Isaac’s offensive game is a major work in progress. 

There is doubt as to whether or not he can become a consistent offensive threat, as he is capable of effective scoring outbursts (including 25 points against Indiana on 63% shooting and 22 points against Memphis on 81% shooting within the month of November), but seemingly much less frequently than a player of his draft capital should be.

Furthermore, it is fair to state that his value noticeably diminishes in the offensive half-court set. Isaac tends to be relegated to the corner on most continuous offenses or set plays, and that positioning has often allowed defenders to sag off him and be confident that he will not make a jump shot and still believe they achieved their most favorable outcome even if he does make it. 

There is unquestionably hope for Isaac from beyond the arc, as he shot 44% from both corners last year, which is indicative of a shot he could use not only as means to make more defenders respect his range, but as a jumping-off point to establish a reliable shot fake and rip that he could use to either drive and kick or finish at the rim.

Ironically enough, a surprisingly high quantity (about 19.7%) of points Isaac scores come as a consequence of his incredible defense, as he takes both passing-lane and on-ball steals backs for easy layups and dunks. 

However, his long, skinny frame, for as much as it blesses him, also hampers his ability to not only score on offense around the rim (he was in the 26th percentile for that metric among bigs), but to be on the court for 82+ games a season. 

After all, there would be no need to talk about Jonathan Isaac’s return if he was not injured in the first place. It truly is a double-edged sword, to see Isaac’s greatest asset be his most crippling weakness.

His slender physique has created multiple durability issues within the first half-decade of his pro career, as he only played in 27 games in the 2017-18 season due to a series of nagging ankle ailments. 

If the conditioning and strength staff of the Orlando Magic can figure out a regimen to add more muscle to Isaac’s frame without compromising his speed and agility, an initiative that they have supposedly been attempting as early as last offseason, then they may be able to salvage a significant number of games in the future he could otherwise be injured for.

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