Hard Work, Patience Paying Off for Isaac

by John Denton

MEMPHIS – The Orlando Magic’s patience with Jonathan Isaac – combined with plenty of hard work all throughout last summer – is starting to pay big dividends late in the season for the franchise and its prized second-year forward.

Isaac came into Sunday’s game in Memphis playing the best basketball of his young career and beginning to resemble the franchise cornerstone piece that the Magic thought he could become when they selected him No. 6 in the 2017 NBA Draft.

The nearly 7-foot Isaac came into Sunday averaging 13.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots while shooting 50 percent from the floor over the previous 10 games. Even more impressive is the fact that Isaac has incredibly drilled 46.5 percent of his 3-point shots (27 of 58) over a 13-game stretch before Sunday.

That success comes after the 21-year-old Isaac saw his rookie season limited to 27 games and marred by a series of ankle injuries. Other than a short absence early in this season, Isaac has had no problems with his ankles since switching to braces made popular by two-time MVP and three-time champion Stephen Curry. Isaac worked hard all summer to strengthen his body and grow his game and he has taken great pride blossoming just as the Magic are making a strong playoff push.

``It was tough, but that’s what this league is all about and I’m not the only guy who does this,’’ Isaac said of the work he put in over the summer to improve his shooting. ``In this league, there are so many great players and to even be average in this league you have to have a level of professionalism and hunger to be the best. That’s what I want to be about. I want to be a guy who works each and every day, especially in the summer like guys before me have. I’ll continue to do that this (upcoming) summer and see where it goes from there.’’

Magic coach Steve Clifford said it was just a matter of time before Isaac’s talent came through because of his work in the weight room and his drill work with Magic assistant coach Bruce Kreutzer, the team’s shooting specialist. Kreutzer has been credited by Charlotte all-star point guard Kemba Walker for helping make him become a much more efficient shooter from 3-point range.

``He’s worked so hard and he’s in there (at the Magic headquarters) every off day and he’s in a good routine,’’ Clifford said of Isaac. ``His shot mechanics are so much more consistent.

``Bruce (Kreutzer) has his way of shooting and then he’s adaptable,’’ Clifford continued, referring to his work with Isaac. ``He watches every guy shoot, he shows them what he sees in their shot and they come to a common place on what adjustments should be made before they ever start out on the court. So, they have a plan that they’re both comfortable with before they start. And Bruce is relentless. Bruce loves to be in the gym and when (players) walk in the gym, he’s right there waiting for them.’’

GRANT IMPROVING: With recent injuries to D.J. Augustin (a minor ankle sprain) and Isaiah Briscoe (meniscus tear in right knee), there has been some concern about the Magic’s depth and production at point guard behind Augustin.

Jerian Grant, who has struggled with uneven play all season, put some of those concerns to rest of late when he was pressed into duty. Last week in Indiana, when Augustin missed most of the second half after rolling his right ankle, Grant came off the bench and contributed seven points, two assists, a steal and a block in a Magic victory. Then, in Friday’s defeat of Dallas, Grant stepped in after Briscoe was ruled out and had Orlando’s best plus/minus ratio (a plus-13 in nearly 20 minutes) of the night. He gave the Magic six points, four assists, two rebounds and two steals off the bench.

``It’s all about the next guy up and we’re making a playoff push and I’m trying to help the team get wins so that we can get in there (to the postseason),’’ Grant said. ``That phrase (`stay ready so you don’t have to get ready’) is what I live by. It’s all about staying ready in this league.’’

Clifford said on Sunday that there has been no decision made yet on whether Briscoe will have surgery to repair the small meniscus tear in his right knee. Another option is rehabilitation – a move that might get him back on the court sooner.

THE CLIFFORD EFFECT: With Memphis coach J.B. Bickerstaff celebrating his 40th birthday on Sunday, his father long-time NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff, was in Memphis to take in the game between the Magic and the Grizzlies.

Orlando’s Clifford has credited the older Bickerstaff with being a big ally of his in Charlotte after he landed his first head coaching job with the Hornets from 2013-18.

J.B. Bickerstaff has long been an admirer of the work that Clifford has done as a head coach, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Coming into Sunday’s game in Memphis, the Grizzlies ranked sixth in the NBA in defensive rating (106.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) and the Magic ranked ninth in the league at 107.8.

``The more and more you watch (the Magic play) – and it was always going to take a little time – but you can see (Clifford’s) style come through,’’ said Bickerstaff, who was given a birthday cake on Sunday prior to tipoff by former Grizzlies’ television analyst Brevin Knight. `` How they defend and make things difficult for the opponent and his teams don’t beat themselves. They don’t turn the ball over a ton, they take the shots that they want to take, and they play at a pace that they want to play at. They force you to outplay them and you’ve got to beat them because they won’t beat themselves.’’

UP NEXT: Because the Magic have played more games than most of the teams in the Eastern Conference, the NBA schedule is beginning to repay them with more time off to rest between games.

Orlando plays the Wizards in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, but before that the team will head back to Orlando for a day off and another day of practice. The Magic had two days off prior to beating the Dallas Mavericks on Friday night and they will have two days to prepare for the final meeting against the Wizards.

Orlando and Washington split the first two meetings of the season, winning on their home courts. The Wizards earned the upper hand in the season series on Jan. 25 when they won 95-91 in Orlando behind 27 points and five 3-pointers from all-star guard Bradley Beal. That night, Washington made 15 of 27 3-point shots, while Orlando connected on just seven of 33 tries.

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.