The Next Elite NBA Defender Can Shoot, Too - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because he could become the best defensive forward in the league.

By Brendon Kleen

  • Jonathan Isaac is the prototype of a new-world NBA player: an athletic 7-footer with 3-point range.
  • Hampered by injuries and a lack of confidence, the Orlando Magic standout is ready to blossom as the league restarts.
  • Isaac could be the next Pascal Siakam.

From Broward International to Florida State to the Orlando Magic to Walt Disney World, the home of the NBA’s bubble restart, almost everyone has a story about Jonathan Isaac, and most of these have two components: watching Isaac do unfathomable things on the basketball court, and trying to convince him he could be great. It’s not that Isaac is unaware of his talent or lacks passion, but the unassuming 7-footer has had to work to become the type of leader willing to take big shots and take over games. 

“Three years ago, if you had told Jon that he would be known for his defensive abilities rather than his offensive prowess, he probably wouldn’t believe you,” says Corey Evans, a national basketball analyst at the recruiting outlet Rivals, “but now he has the chance to be one of the best defensive forwards in the NBA.”

Shortly after Isaac moved from the Bronx to southern Florida, Evans took notice of the slender athlete with “great pace,” who would soon become the apple of college coaches’ eyes. Isaac’s long, athletic, relentless style was a perfect fit at Florida State, as was his personality, with the Seminoles program shifting its recruiting focus to a strong team culture rather than simply sourcing the best athletes.

I know what type of player I’m going to be in this league, and this team knows that as well.

Jonathan Isaac

Isaac says his single year in Tallahassee was a “great growing-up experience,” as teammates could see him searching for his rhythm on the court. “He always talked about not wanting to fail to live up to the hype he had coming in,” says Terance Mann, a captain at Florida State drafted by the Clippers last summer. “We always had to remind him he was a pro.”

His third year as a pro resumes in the bizarre confines of the NBA’s “clean site” at the Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, as Isaac finds himself again on a court in Florida with something to prove. A bad knee sprain nearly ended Isaac’s season, but the NBA’s four-month pandemic hiatus allowed a full recovery. On Monday, Isaac appeared in the Magic’s final scrimmage game (scoring 13 points and seven rebounds in just seven minutes), and he looks set to be a crucial piece of a team fighting to hold on to its slot in the playoffs as the NBA’s restart begins.

His teammates’ eagerness was evident for the return of its roadrunner forward Monday. “Hard work always pays off,” guard Markelle Fultz said after the scrimmage. “You could hear it as soon as he checks in; everybody’s just excited [for him].”

Pre-injury, the season had been a coming-out party for the 22-year-old, who put up 1.6 steals and 2.4 blocks per game, earning him NBA All-Defensive Team buzz.

But the real growth came in his 12 points per game on offense, with Isaac taking more shots at the rim as well as more 3-pointers, diversifying his game and improving his efficiency. “Left-handed, right-handed, he’s really good at finishing around the hoop,” says veteran teammate Terrence Ross.

Fate must have had a good laugh, then, as Isaac suffered a knee injury on a strong drive to the rim, the type of over-aggressive play teammates and coaches have long tried to coax out of him. That college caution and fear? It’s gone now. “When he walks out on the court, he knows he’s the best defender on the court,” says teammate D.J. Augustin.

Credit the 2019 playoffs for the transformation. Orlando stole a boxing match of a Game One on the road against the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors, before losing in five games. The series loss “showed just how tough the playoffs are and how serious it is,” Isaac says, “and it made me and my teammates hungry to get back there and experience it all over again.”

The series also pit Isaac against Pascal Siakam — the type of skilled, versatile forward that Isaac is on the verge of becoming. These rangy matchup-killers are perhaps the most valuable asset at an NBA team’s disposal today, as the league has shifted toward smaller lineups and more perimeter action.

“I know what type of player I’m going to be in this league, and this team knows that as well,” Isaac says.

But for Isaac to become an All-Star and championship building block like Siakam, he’ll need to improve his 3-point shot and find a move as trusty as Siakam’s patented spin down the lane. Isaac can do it all, but to lead a great team, he’ll have to be more consistent, even when the defense is keyed in on him.

Now in his second year under Coach Steve Clifford — who fostered the rise of All-NBA guard Kemba Walker in Charlotte — Isaac says “it’s been huge” to have coaching consistency. Coupled with a taste of the playoffs, those factors have the young Magic looking to make a sneaky run in this unpredictable mini-season.

The team begins the restart in eighth place, meaning they’d have a playoff matchup with top-seeded Milwaukee — and all-world Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the coronavirus delay has arguably been a boon, giving Isaac time to return from his injury. Plus, the Magic are now the quasi home team.

For Isaac, most of life so far has taken place in a quiet gym somewhere in Florida. He finds himself there once again on the fan-less Walt Disney World campus. Even with no one in the stands, though, all eyes are on him.

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