Support From Close Friend Helped Jonathan Isaac Stay Upbeat While Injured

By John Denton
Dec. 19, 2017

CHICAGO – Out of basketball for 5½ weeks and growing increasingly frustrated about the time it was taking his sprained ankle to heal, Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac had a close friend come to the rescue recently to return his bubbly smile and child-like zest for life.

Deron Hepburn, a preacher at Jump Ministries Global, noticed last week that the 20-year-old Isaac wasn’t his usual happy-go-lucky self and inquired about the source of his discontent. When Isaac spoke of his frustration of being out for more than a month and still in pain, Hepburn invited the 6-foot-10, 215-pound Isaac out for a night of Cirque du Soleil at Disney Springs to distract him from his worries.

``That’s exactly why I went because my preacher friend noticed that I was frustrated by not playing and it really lightened my spirits,’’ Isaac said, seemingly still amazed by the feats of the acrobats. ``Cirque du Soleil blew my mind and the athletes that they have there were amazing. I want to know all of the practicing that they do and what they do to get to where they are.’’

In a weird sort of way, Isaac said the night off from worrying about his ankle and feeling sorry for himself proved tremendously therapeutic. Not long after, Isaac was able to practice fully with the Magic for the first time in a month and he made his return to game action – albeit on a limited basis – Sunday in Detroit.

When the Magic (11-20) face the surprisingly surging Bulls (9-20) Wednesday in Chicago, Isaac will most likely see even more playing time with which to do some high-flying acrobatics of his own. He said the sprained ankle that unexpectedly kept him out from Nov. 12 through Dec. 16 proved sound on Sunday in Detroit and he is hoping to be cleared for more minutes against the Bulls.

``I definitely feel like my conditioning is better and I should be seeing more minutes now,’’ Isaac said.

That’s certainly the hope of Magic head coach Frank Vogel, who was impressed with the rookie’s impact on Sunday’s game even though he missed all four of his shot attempts on the offensive end. In a little more than 16 minutes, Isaac had an offensive rebound, grabbed two boards total, forced a turnover, drew a foul and held Detroit’s Anthony Tolliver (17 points and five 3-pointers) in check.

``You’ve got a guy in Anthony Tolliver, who was five-for-five on threes when Jonathan wasn’t on him and when Jonathan Isaac was near him, he missed. His length is real, it’s a factor and it changes things for us defensively,’’ Vogel said. ``He’s going to be rusty (offensively) for a few games, but just getting him back out there is a positive for us.’’

The Magic were wise to proceed with caution after Isaac – the prized No. 6 pick from last June’s NBA Draft – rolled his ankle on Nov. 11. Even the play where he was injured lent some insight into his talents as a difference-making defender as he swatted Emmanuel Mudiay’s shot only to come down the Denver guard’s foot, causing his ankle to buckle.

Isaac says that it is the first sprained ankle of his basketball career and, still, he never expected it to keep him away from action as long as it did. Moving laterally and cutting off the foot proved problematic and delayed his return.

One good thing did come of Isaac’s time away from game action. He learned something that most people twice his age deal with on a daily basis: Inactivity usually leads to weight gain. While that’s a bad thing for most 40 and 50-somethings, Isaac saw his added weight as a big positive considering his rail-thin frame and his lifetime of struggles in adding weight.

``I think I was drafted at 210 (pounds) and I’m like 215 or 216 (pounds) now,’’ Isaac said. ``Honestly, the best thing that happened to my weight was getting hurt. I was able to sit down and eat and work out and that helped.’’

Some worried that Isaac’s lack of weight would be a big issue when the Magic drafted him out of Florida State. However, Isaac used his eye-popping 7-foot wingspan, his lateral quickness and his strong defensive instincts to make up for whatever positioning he might have missed after getting pushed around.

Said Isaac: ``I even had that notion that I was going to have to play really, really tough to make it seem like I can’t get pushed around, but I feel like I haven’t had to do that. Maybe it’s the way that I’ve played, but I think my energy can overshadow any weight I’m lacking.’’

In his first 12 games of NBA action, Isaac scored 6.1 points and grabbed 4.4 rebounds a game while swatting 1.25 shots a game. Just having his long-armed protection around the rim had a whopping impact on the Magic as they ranked sixth in the NBA in defensive efficiency over the first dozen games.

Without Isaac on the floor over the next 17 games, the Magic’s defensive efficiency dipped into the NBA’s bottom five. Seeing the team slump caused Isaac great consternation – much more than he ever let on to his coaches or teammates, he said. As much as he wanted to return quickly, his sore right ankle wouldn’t let him do so. He said his strong Christian faith – something he talks openly about regularly – kept him going through the toughest time he’s had yet in his short NBA career.

``Honestly, my faith means everything to me and it means more to me than this sport,’’ Isaac said candidly. ``I feel like it’s the reason that I’m living. I truly believe that.

``I try to grab guys on the team and talk about (faith) and I see no harm in talking about it,’’ he added. ``No doubt about it, it gives me strength. When I’m frustrated, my preacher friend (Orlando’s Deron Hepburn) speaks to me about my faith and it lifts my spirits.’’

What also lifts Isaac’s spirits is his love for the theatrical arts. In addition to recently taking in the Cirque du Soleil performance, he’s seen Hamilton on Broadway and he has an interest in attending a live performance of ``The Lion King’’ when the play comes to Orlando in February.

Isaac’s strong faith and his love for the arts – sides that some might be surprised by from a NBA player – are his ways of keeping balance in his life and lifting his spirits when basketball gets him down.

``I think things like (musicals, plays, etc.) are super fun, it helps you learn and you get to see how talented other people in this world are,’’ Isaac said. ``Sometimes we look at the NBA as being the Mecca of athleticism and talent, but the athletes that they have at something like Cirque du Soleil was amazing. It’s just about shining a light on other people and being amazed at what they can do, too.’’

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.