ORLANDO – Getting to the playoffs in his second NBA season – and seeing what it did to the passion for Orlando Magic basketball among fans and witnessing what that level of play did to the intensity of the games – proved to be the perfect offseason motivator for forward Jonathan Isaac.
All offseason, Isaac said he’s been driven by the memories of the high-stakes games, the ear-splitting noise and the need to be great from the experiences he received last spring in the NBA playoffs. Isaac remembers how great it felt when the Magic stunned the eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors in Game 1 and also the disappointment he was saddled with for weeks when they dropped the next four postseason games.
Those memories – both the beautiful and bitter ones – rammed home the point to Isaac that he and the Magic have to expect more of themselves in the coming season. Isaac, who will turn 22 years old three days into training camp in early October, knows the Magic are looking him to evolve from being simply a ``three-and-D’’ player to one that can be counted on to carry a more significant offensive and defensive load in the coming season.
As for the Magic, after retaining free agents Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross and Khem Birch, signing free agent Al-Farouq Aminu and returning a solid core of Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, D.J. Augustin, Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz and Wes Iwundu, they are being looked to by some as a team that could contend for a top-four seed and make more playoff noise in the Eastern Conference. The always affable Isaac is just fine with those increased expectations for him and the Magic.
``That’s what it’s all about – wanting more,’’ Isaac said recently after making an appearance at NBA Experience at Disney Springs. ``Getting a little taste of what (winning) does to the city (of Orlando), winning games, winning tough games (late in the regular season) and getting to the playoffs – that just gives us more incentive to go back and do it again.
``So, we’re all hyped up for the season,’’ Isaac added. ``And I’m sure as guys get together and start playing again, we’ll have more of those talks about, `Hey, we can go even farther than we did last (season).’’
Isaac thinks he can go farther than he did last season after working throughout the summer to better his body and to grow his game. Still growing and now nearly 7-feet tall, Isaac has gone from 209 pounds at the end of the playoffs to a chiseled 234 pounds some six weeks before the start of training camp. It remains to be seen if Isaac can maintain that weight during the NBA’s rigorous regular season, but he’s already seeing ways that the added bulk and muscle can help him on the court.
While recently competing with USA Basketball’s Select Team in Las Vegas, Isaac showed an ability to better absorb contact without getting knocked off course – something that affected him in the past when opponents got physical with him. Also, Isaac’s mindset seems much stronger in that he is a more willing shooter now and someone who more eagerly seeks out scoring opportunities instead of being so passive.
``It’s just about being comfortable out there on the court and with the changes in my body, it’s now about being able to bump and grind on the inside and take those hits,’’ Isaac said of his bigger body. ``I feel more like a more confident and consistent shooter now. All of it, has gotten a lot better for me.’’
Isaac was a lot better in his second NBA season than he was in an injury-marred rookie season. Last season, he averaged 9.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.31 blocks and 1.1 assists a game while shooting 42.9 percent from the floor and 32.3 percent from 3-point range. He scored a career-best 20 points in a February win in New Orleans, racked up three double-doubles during the season and he swatted at least one shot in 52 games.
In the playoffs against Toronto, Isaac made the biggest shot of his young career – a go-ahead 3-pointer from the right corner with 1:57 to play – in a Game 1 Magic victory. He followed that up days later with 14 points, seven rebounds, two blocks, two steals and two 3-pointers in Orlando’s crushing Game 3 loss at home. However, he struggled mightily in his final two games of the season, making just one of 11 shots in Games 4 and 5 of the playoffs.
Those memories have pushed Isaac throughout the summer to improve himself. He’s spent most of his off time in the gym, something that has allowed him to build a friendship and plenty of chemistry with point guard Markelle Fultz – another promising young player who could evolve into being a difference-maker this season for the Magic.
``Markelle has been working his butt off this summer,’’ Isaac said of Fultz, who is still rehabilitating his right shoulder from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. ``I’ve gotten a chance to be in the gym with him and hang out and he’s working really hard. He’s doing what he’s got to do to be successful this season.’’
So, too, is Isaac, who is openly eager to begin what he hopes will be a big season for himself and the Magic. He is confident that a team that went 22-9 over the final 2 ½ months of last season can carry over that success to this season and make another playoff run.
``We’re all excited about it,’’ Isaac said. ``T-Ross posted the other day on Instagram about how he can’t wait for the season to get here and I’m the same way. I’m hyped about it, too.
``I was hyped about getting done with Vegas (and his USA Basketball commitments) because it’s a telling sign that the season is coming,’’ Isaac continued. ``The summer has been great, productive and fun, but we’re excited about this season and the guys that we have back on the team together.’’
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