SALT LAKE CITY – Maybe it should come as little surprise that 20-year-old rookie Jonathan Isaac has grown from 6-foot-10 to 6-11 since being drafted by the Orlando Magic nine months ago considering that doctors have told him his growth plates are ``wide open’’ and he could potentially be as tall as 7-foot-1½ someday.
If Isaac has his way, his only growth in the future will come in the form of his on-court basketball knowledge.
``I hope the doctors are wrong about that,’’ he said with a sly smile. ``I don’t want to be that tall.’’
The Magic might beg to differ with Isaac on that topic considering how the towering rookie’s imposing length impacted his last two games – both Orlando victories at the Amway Center.
Rarely – if ever in the 29-year history of the Magic’s franchise – has a player failed to score in a game and still left such an imprint on winning as Isaac did in Saturday’s 107-100 defeat of Memphis. Not only did he snag five rebounds and block three shots – including a how-did-he-do-that? swat of a potential tying 3-pointer with 11.7 seconds left – he contested another half-dozen shots at the rim, lived in the passing lanes and continually caused havoc all night for the Grizzlies.
Afterward, Isaac’s performance had Magic coach Frank Vogel comparing his defensive instincts to those of perennial all-star Paul George, the NBA’s leader in pass deflections and someone who ranks second in steals. Usually, top rookies thrive offensively in the NBA, but the defensive end is struggle that takes time to master. Not the case with George, and now Isaac, Vogel said.
``Paul, as a rookie, had really good defensive instincts and similarly we did not ask a lot of him on the offensive end early in his career,’’ recalled Vogel, who coached George for five seasons with the Indiana Pacers. ``(George) impacted the game with his – it’s not just athleticism and length; a lot of long guys and athletic guys get beat all the time – it’s the instincts that made him special. (Isaac) is definitely – like we’ve been saying all along – NBA-ready (defensively) right now.’’
Isaac and his Magic teammates will have to be ready starting Monday for the daunting five-game road trip that the squad will be facing over the next 10 nights. Orlando (20-43) plays Utah (Monday), the Los Angeles Lakers (Wednesday), Sacramento (Friday), the Los Angeles Clippers (Saturday) and San Antonio (March 13) on the longest road jaunt of the season. The Jazz have won 14 of 16 and hung a 40-point loss on Orlando in mid-November.
It should be noted that the Utah game came while Isaac was out of action with an ankle injury that occurred on Nov. 11 when he was – doing what else? – blocking a foe’s shot. That injury allowed him to play just three games from early November to this week, coinciding with the Magic’s midseason swoon and defensive struggles.
In the 17 games that Isaac has played this season, Orlando is a solid 10-7. Even more impressively, it is 10-4 in the games that he’s finished and wasn’t bothered by lingering ankle pain. Foes have shot just 45.3 percent in Isaac’s 17 games compared to 48.1 percent in the 46 games he missed.
Those numbers are somewhat mind-boggling to Magic guard Evan Fournier, who had the game-winning 3-pointers in the Friday defeat Detroit and the Saturday success against Memphis. Isaac made Fournier’s tiebreaking 3-pointer stand on Saturday when he went for Jarell Martin’s original shot fake, regrouped quickly and covered the approximately five feet of ground to deflect Martin’s shot from beyond the arc.
In Isaac’s two games this week, he registered nine deflections, according to the Magic coaching staff, and NBA.com credited him with 17 shots contested – all while being on a minutes’ restriction. Fournier said that while Isaac might already be an elite defender, his most dominant days are still to come.
``I feel like that’s his strength. That’s how he got drafted,’’ Fournier said of the rookie’s defense. ``He’s a guy who can defend multiple positions, he’s a rim protector even though he’s not a center and he’s in the passing lanes with deflections – he’s extremely good at that.
``The offense is going to come with finding his rhythm and being on the floor more,’’ Fournier added. ``This is his (17th) game of the season and offensively it’s going to take time, but defensively he’s having a huge impact right now. I can only imagine what he’s going to be when he’s more confident and stronger. And I’m looking forward to it.’’
Isaac is definitely looking forward to getting bigger and stronger – something he already accomplished to a degree while working in the weight room with Head Strength and Conditioning coach Bill Burgos and assistant Daniel Erickson. Isaac put his time away from basketball to good use by working with shooting coach Dave Love to better balance his jump shot and by bulking up from a rail-thin body from 210 pounds to 222. Already, he’s noticed the added weight paying benefits and he wants to be even bigger – if not any taller – in due time.
``It’s helped being able to bang a bit more. I had a couple of grimy rebounds (against Memphis), so I’d say yeah, it’s definitely helped me,’’ he said. ``I’m at 221 or 222 now and I’d say 230 (pounds), or maybe 228. I’m not really sure what the strength coaches will want 100 percent, but I think that’s a great spot for me. I’d say, ultimately playing at 230 would be great for me.’’
Simply playing, and playing well in wins, has been gratifying for Isaac after having to miss almost half the season with the ankle issues. While he was away, fellow rookies Donovan Mitchell (Utah), Jayson Tatum (Boston), Lauri Markkanen (Chicago), Dennis Smith Jr. (Dallas) and Kyle Kouzma (L.A. Lakers) started to blossom for their respective teams. To his credit, Isaac remained patient and waited for a time when he could come up big – big, as in a massive 7-foot-2 wingspan, a 9-foot-1 standing reach and a 36-inch vertical leap. Thus far, all of it has come in quite handy for the 6-foot-11 – and not 7-foot-1½ yet – Isaac.
``It definitely wasn’t easy. It’s just been about staying patient and waiting my turn,’’ Isaac said of his time out injured. ``Now, I’m just doing whatever I can to help. That’s me – just being out here and playing hard.’’
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.