ORLANDO – Orlando Magic second-year forward Jonathan Isaac usually has teammate Aaron Gordon in his ear before and during games, prodding him to believe in his abilities and to be more assertive.
Similarly, Magic head coach Steve Clifford and his staff have spent dozens of hours watching video clips with Isaac and instructing him on how he can have more of an impact on games.
In this instance, however, Isaac’s motivation for the best stretch of his young career has come from a completely different and unlikely source. And, for whatever reason, it seems to have lit a spark under the occasionally placid Isaac.
The 21-year-old forward, who has two of the three double-doubles in his career in Orlando’s past two games, admitted that recently being passed over to play in the Mountain Dew Rising Stars Game at NBA All-Star Weekend has served as a motivating factor for him. And here’s the part that Magic fans will like the most: Isaac said that his motivation will be with him the rest of this season and well into the summer.
``I think with things like (not being picked for the all-star game), you can take it two ways,’’ said Isaac, the No. 6 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft. ``It can be something that hinders you or something that motivates you. I believe it’s motivated me so far and it’s going to continue to motivate me to the summer to be a better player.’’
That has to be good news for the Magic (22-31), winners of two straight games largely thanks to the way that Isaac has asserted himself in a variety of ways of late. In last Thursday’s win over Indiana, Isaac scored 13 points, grabbed a career-best 13 rebounds and swatted two shots. He followed that up two nights later with 10 points, 12 rebounds, three steals and three more blocks in the defeat of the Brooklyn Nets.
Apparently, it’s no coincidence that those two stellar performances came on the heels of the NBA leaving Isaac out of the Rising Stars Game, an exhibition for first- and second-year players which will be held on Feb. 15 in Charlotte during NBA All-Star Weekend. The league now uses a Team World vs. Team U.S. format, and even though Isaac would have been eligible for either roster because of his mother being of Puerto Rican descent, he was excluded entirely. While rookies Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton were logical choices, other rookies such as Marvin Bagley III, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Rodions Kurucs and Josh Okogie were picked ahead of Isaac, who is averaging 8. 3points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.17 blocked shots and 1.1 steals in 47 games for the Magic.
If Isaac can continue his stellar play – including in the Magic’s game in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night – he could potentially be added as an injury replacement for Lakers’ point guard Lonzo Ball, who continues to be out with a grade-three ankle sprain. Adding Isaac to the U.S. roster would allow him to play alongside fellow 2017 draftees Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma and Lauri Markkanen, players that the nearly 7-foot forward considers to be his contemporaries.
Clifford, who has raved about Isaac’s activity and his do-everything play of late, likely doesn’t know much about Isaac being motivated by the all-star snub. Instead, what he sees is a young player growing and learning how to assert himself into games.
``I think it shows a concentration and a confidence that he’s taken a step,’’ Clifford said. ``It’s like with a lot of young players, so much of it is there’s only so much you can be shown or talked to about; the guys who end up lasting a long time and being really good just figure some things out. I think he’s figuring out the things that he can become good at. One of them, obviously, is being on the glass.’’
It’s understandable that Isaac’s growth spurt has come a bit later than some in his draft class after he saw much of his rookie season wiped out by a series of ankle injuries. This season, he has stayed healthy other than a six-game blip in the first month, and he will play his 40th consecutive game on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City against Paul George and the Thunder. As he’s gotten further away from the ankle issues and has consistently logged more meaningful minutes, Isaac has grown into an increasingly reliable player for Orlando. He’s scored in double digits 18 times, he’s had two or more blocks in 13 games, and he’s had at least one steal on 26 nights.
Said Clifford: ``He’s gaining confidence and he’s sustaining really good play every night.’’
Gordon, who at 23 years old has become what he calls ``a young vet,’’ might deserve some of the credit for pushing Isaac to be better. After struggling with his shot early in the season – and continually being dared to take open 3-point shots – Isaac seemed to lose confidence in his game at times. Gordon, however, has been adamant that Isaac is a big part of the Orlando offense and that the usually mild-mannered forward needed to play with more of an edge.
``The more he touches the ball the more he’s confident,’’ Gordon said. ``He’s really skilled and has lots of talent, but he’s just got to believe in himself. As he’s starting to do that, while being more aggressive and physical, it’s starting to help him.’’
Gordon feels that the way Isaac has played of late, as he piled up double-doubles in the past two games while also being a force defensively, is just the start of the difference-making ways he can have on the Magic offensively and defensively.
``Just by challenging him and every day I’m challenging him on something new, get him to expand his mind and think about some things he has thought about since he’s been in the NBA,’’ Gordon said. ``He’s a big part of this team and a big part of our offense and he needs to take those (open) shots and make plays. The more confidence he gets in his abilities (the fans) will see a really good player.’’
Isaac and Gordon will certainly see a really good player on Tuesday when they will be tasked with guarding OKC’s George all night. In addition to being a leading candidate to win the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, George has become an MVP possibility by producing a career-best 22 30-point games thus far. One such night came last week in Orlando when George battered the Magic for 31 first-half points and 37 in a Thunder victory.
``He’s a big guard who can handle the ball and get to the basket,’’ Isaac observed. ``He’s a tough cover and we have to do a better job with him the second time around.’’
George’s career started somewhat similarly to that of Isaac in that it took him a couple of years to evolve into a player confident enough to take over games. Isaac said candidly that while he’s had his struggles with injuries and missed shots and he’s had to learn patience with both himself and his surroundings, he feels his comfort level growing almost nightly.
While landing individual honors, such as being named to the Rising Stars Game, haven’t necessarily fit his ``timetable,’’ he stressed that he’s improving and getting closer to being the difference-maker that the Magic need.
``Difficult things? I’d say, obviously, yes, just being patient with yourself, being patient with the team, going with whatever is going on, doing what the coach wants and what’s best for the team. So, it’s just about taking things day by day,’’ he said. ``It definitely goes into – what do I want to say? –
me not being so hard on myself. There are times when I can beat myself up. Not playing so much my first year was motivation. But it’s just about taking it day by day and not beating myself up so much.
``Every single game, I just think I’m just getting more and more comfortable out there,’’ he added. ``I feel like I’m just coming into my own and I’m getting just more used to playing with certain guys and having minutes. So, it’s just the timetable that I’m on.’’
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