Coaches, Teammates See Jonathan Isaac as Magic's Potential X-Factor

Isaac excited to show his improvement on both ends of floor
by John Denton

ORLANDO – Jonathan Isaac is a few days shy of his 21st birthday and still incredibly raw as a player, but he is being looked at by some of his Orlando Magic teammates as a potential X-factor for this season. Rather than seeing that as some sort of burden or a source of pressure, the long-armed and towering Isaac welcomes it the same way he does when asked to check the other team’s best scorer.

After all, how many NBA players are talented, versatile and trustworthy enough to guard superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis in their rookie seasons? Isaac possesses that kind of stratospheric ceiling as a player and it’s just one of the many reasons that some with the Magic feel like he could be the forward to potentially push the franchise over the hump this season.

``I love that, and I appreciate that,’’ Isaac said, referring to teammates’ expectations that he be a key cog on the team in his second NBA season. ``I don’t think (teammates) are putting too much pressure on me because I think that’s what is expected of me and that’s what I expect of myself as I get better, get more comfortable and get more experience – to be that guy who will step up and make great plays on the defensive and offensive ends. I just see myself stepping into that role as I play more, and I hope to be the X-factor for this team.’’

For Isaac to do just that he, first, must prove that he can stay healthier than he did during an injury-marred rookie season. Secondly, he will need to show tremendous improvements offensively by playing with the same confidence and assertiveness that he flashed in the NBA Summer League when he often resembled the best player on the floor. Do those things well, combined with being a suffocating defender who can smother wing players and big men on the inside, and Isaac could mean a world of difference to a Magic squad looking for its first winning season since 2012.

At least that’s the unflinching opinion of Magic shooting guard Evan Fournier, who has suffered through four consecutive losing campaigns in Orlando and is eager to see the franchise get back into contention.

``J.I. is going to be the X-factor for us,’’ Fournier said of the player who appeared in just 27 NBA games last season. ``I don’t want to put any pressure on him at all, but he is going to be a key guy for us because of his versatility. He’s a (small forward/power forward) who can really guard and he’s super long. His shot-making, especially the corner threes, is going to be really key for him. Especially as a young player, that’s what you have to do – you have to knock down open shots to be really dangerous. Us players and the coaches are really high on him.’’

Then, there’s this from Magic newcomer Jerian Grant: ``J.I. has looked like an All-Defensive player in training camp so far.’’
The praise for Isaac extends to new Magic head coach Steve Clifford, who never got to see Isaac play in person last season as the rookie missed all four games against the Charlotte Hornets – Clifford’s previous employer – because of ankle injuries. Clifford was on hand for Isaac’s three stellar Summer League performances and he’s talked with the young forward about doing many of those same things that should make him a key cog for the Magic.

``Jonathan Isaac played really well in Summer League and played in a way that should translate into playing well in the NBA,’’ Clifford said of the player who averaged 5.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks a game as a rookie. ``He’s been around for a year, so he has a better idea of what to expect. Jonathan is much further along physically and mentally than (rookie center) Mo (Bamba) is now.’’

That statement alone says plenty about the work that Isaac put in over the summer to vastly improve his body. After being the No. 6 pick of the 2017 NBA Draft, Isaac played most of last season at a spindly 211 pounds. Work in the weight room and with a Magic nutritionist has since helped him bulk up to 226 pounds and he is now within range of his goal of 230 pounds. Also, after sprouting from 6-10 to 6-11 as a rookie, Isaac has continued to grow upward to a territory where he isn’t quite as comfortable.

``I haven’t measured myself and I don’t want to because I don’t want to be 7-feet tall,’’ Isaac said playfully, knowing full well that the spiky hair on top of his head easily takes him over that plateau. ``When you say you’re 7-feet to people when they ask you how tall you are, they go ballistic. But when you say 6-11, they go, `OK. That’s tall, but it’s not 7-foot.’ I don’t want to be 7-foot, but I do feel taller.’’

Throughout his summer pick-up games and the early stages of training camp Isaac said he’s witnessed how his improved strength has made him an even more effective player. Now, he doesn’t get knocked off course as much on cuts to the rim and he’s better able to hold his ground when facing bigger, more mature players such as last season when he checked the burly James and the dynamic Davis in early-season Magic victories.

``One of my first games last year I had to guard LeBron because (Aaron Gordon) was out and that was an exciting game for me because (James) is so strong and aggressive,’’ said Isaac, who limited the four-time MVP to 22 points and two assists in 31 minutes. ``I’d also say Anthony Davis (was a difficult matchup) because of his length and his strength.

``Being able to defend, being able to take bumps and stay in front of guys, I’d say everywhere on the court I’ve seen improvements with more strength in my body,’’ he added.

Undoubtedly, foes are going to sag off Isaac on the offensive end of the floor, daring him to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Last season, he shot just 37.9 percent from the floor and only 34.8 percent from 3-point range, but he did make a career-best three threes in what proved to be his final game on April 1 in Atlanta. All of those numbers can be thrown out, Isaac stressed, because he is in a much better place now with his offensive game following an offseason in which he gained more confidence in his re-tooled shot. Also, Clifford has shown his confidence in Isaac’s blossoming skills by giving him a significant role in the team’s offense.

``I know (Clifford) expects me to be aggressive and expects me to shoot the ball when I’m open,’’ Isaac said. ``As our offense is, the (power forwards) and the (centers) are creating a lot of the action, so it’s about me being aggressive and picking my spots and scoring in the flow of the offense.

``Being able to do the things I need to do offensively,’’ he added, ``those are the things that are going to help me be the player that I want to be.’’

Then, there’s this: Isaac also feels that he will be a significantly better defender than he showed last season. Considering that he blocked two-or-more shots in a game nine times and registered multiple-steal games 11 times as a raw rookie, Isaac’s steady improvement could make scorers around the NBA shudder when facing the Magic this season.

``I feel there’s still a huge gap between where I am defensively and where I can be,’’ said Isaac, who swatted three shots three times last season and recorded a career-best five steals on March 20 against Toronto. ``I still get so many of the techniques and where to be on defense wrong, but by relying on my length, size and instinct I’ve been able to be counted as a good defender. But as I’m able to get with Coach Cliff and our team and grow defensively, I still think there’s a greater defensive player in me.’’

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