Isaac Motivated to Make Even More Strides Heading Into Next Season

by John Denton

ORLANDO – Going into the 2018-19 season, several players on the Orlando Magic confidently stated that they were looking to second-year forward Jonathan Isaac to be an ``X-factor’’ because of his ability to impact games on both ends of the floor.

Their mission was to simultaneously stoke the confidence and ignite the passion of the mild-mannered forward – a tactic that worked out well for Isaac and the Magic.

Now, going into the summer before his third NBA season, the nearly 7-foot Isaac could very well factor into the Magic’s ability to make major strides next season with his own individual growth.

Easily one of the Magic’s most improved players this season, Isaac is hoping to take another monumental leap with his game this offseason. The Magic are hopeful that another big step by the 21-year-old Isaac can help them be an even more diversified and talented team going forward. Isaac knows big-time growth is expected from him once again, and he’s eager to respond accordingly.

``I would just say, with my game personally, I just built a comfort-ness with being out there on the court, being more familiar with being out there, being a starter, being in games late – all of it in contrast to my first year – and that was the biggest difference for me,’’ Isaac said of his second NBA season. ``The playoffs shine a light on how good the guys in this league are and how hard it is to play in the postseason. It gives me a drive to make an even bigger jump than I did last season. I’m excited about what’s going on with me and where I’m at with my game.’’

Following a disappointing rookie season where he played just 27 games because of a series of ankle injuries, Isaac showed this past season why the Magic believed in him so much during the 2017 NBA Draft when they selected his sixth overall. Not only did Isaac play 75 games – including 67 in a row at one point – he averaged 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.31 blocks a game while displaying some of the vast promise that the Magic feel he holds going forward.

He had a career-best 20-point game in New Orleans in February – during a Magic five-game winning streak – and he scored in double figures 37 times and notched four double-digit rebound efforts. His shooting percentages – 41.9 percent overall and 32.7 percent from 3-point range – still left something to be desired, but he made major strides in terms of seeking out shots and showing a willingness to let fly corner 3-pointers at key moments. In fact, one of his biggest shots of the season came in Game 1 of Orlando’s first-round playoff series against Toronto when he drilled a go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:57 to play – a game that the Magic went on to win in clutch fashion.

``With Jonathan, it was just so much about his shot-making and his range shooting,’’ said Magic coach Steve Clifford, who admitted at times during the season that he had difficulty taking Isaac off the court because he often factored so heavily into winning. ``We have every (analytical) number and the defenses were so much more aggressive with him the last few games because he was shooting the three so well. Then, and you could start to see it in the playoffs, that sets up your ability to drive the ball.

``In this league, people talk about spacing being a basic tenant of basketball, but your spacing is your shooting (range), and they only guard you to where you can shoot from,’’ Clifford added. ``So, from what you saw with his improved shooting and all the work that he did with (Magic assistant coach) Bruce Kreutzer, it helped his confidence level and defenses knew they had to get to him. That will continue to open up his ability to play off the dribble and the number of plays he can make.’’

As for those aforementioned playoffs, Isaac got an up-close-and-personal look at how the improvement of one player can dramatically impact and improve a basketball team.

Toronto forward Pascal Siakam, the player that Isaac guarded throughout Orlando’s 4-1 loss to the Raptors in the playoffs, is the heavy favorite to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award after averaging 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 54.9 percent shooting from the floor and 36.9 percent from 3-point range. The 25-year-old Siakam, who at 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds is built similarly to the 6-11, 220-pound Isaac, saw his big jump come between his second season (7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists on 50.8 percent shooting and 22 percent accuracy from 3-point range) and his third. Isaac is now hoping to pull off a similar feat after seeing how Siakam made the Raptors a much more difficult team to stop with his do-everything skills.

``Siakam has grown as a player exponentially and I’m happy for him and happy for the season that he’s had because he’s a good dude,’’ Isaac said. ``It just speaks to his work ethic and what he’s done. I can definitely take a note out of his book, continue to work hard and work on my body. I think that’s the biggest thing that I take away from his leap – it’s just his body and he can play 48 minutes, he doesn’t get tired, he runs hard, he had a lot of energy and he’s just a bull. That’s something I’m looking to take away from (Siakam) – get in the weight room, get stronger and doing a better job conditioning-wise so that I can play more minutes.’’

That has to be music to the ears of Clifford and the Magic front office, who are hopeful that Isaac’s willingness to work and improve becomes infectious among a young core of talent that includes center Mo Bamba, point guard Markelle Fultz and elite wing defender Wes Iwundu. Along with Isaac, that grouping gives the Magic a promising core of young players that all could prove to be difference-makers in the very near future. Orlando is of the belief that regardless of whether it is able to retain unrestricted free agents Nikola Vucevic and shooting guard Terrence Ross that it will be a team on the rise next season because of the dynamic abilities of players such as Isaac, Bamba and Fultz.

``It’s going to be something to look forward to and it’s going to be fun this summer working out together,’’ Isaac said of the young core’s ability to make gains. ``(Aaron Gordon) is going to be better and then guys like Mo, Wes, Markelle, those guys are going to come back better. It’s a fun, exciting time for the Orlando Magic and I think it should be.’’

Isaac delivered on the expectations of him being an ``X-factor’’ this past season, and now he knows that there is pressure on him to grow into being an even more impactful player. He knows full well that the franchise is looking to him for growth, and that if it comes, the Magic likely will be able to make more strides next season. Instead of looking at those expectations as some sort of pressurized stumbling block, Isaac said he embraces the challenges placed before him and stressed that he is up for the test.

``This year was so much fun for me and to hear those guys say that (about him being an X-factor) in the beginning of the year, it was great,’’ he admitted candidly. ``To be healthy, help the team win games and make plays, that was all so great for me.

``In terms of looking to the future, I’m excited about it, it’s exactly what I’ve asked for and what I’ve wanted – to become a pivotal player for a franchise, help them win games, especially late and in the postseason,’’ he added. ``I’m excited about this summer and the new things and changes that are coming. I’m excited about becoming the player that I feel myself growing into.’’

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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