Isaac Shows Poise During Breakout Performance

Josh Cohen
Digital News Manager

ORLANDO – When Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac kept making play after play on Monday – a confidently stroked corner 3-pointer early in the night, a snatch-and-score offensive rebound before halftime and a steely shot late that quieted a roaring crowd – it felt very much like a coming-of-age moment for the promising 21-year-old.

At least that’s what many of Isaac’s Magic teammates thought after watching the finest performance of the second-year player’s young career. His 18 points and 12 rebounds were both career-high marks and his suffocating defense on budding star Jayson Tatum was definitely significant, but it was that calm, cold-blooded shot that blunted Boston and quieted the crowd with 53.7 seconds to play that left many Magic players buzzing with excitement.

This landmark, breakthrough performance, guard Evan Fournier said within earshot of Isaac in the victorious Magic locker room afterward, is what the team will expect going forward from a player who seemingly seeps talent out his every pore.

``We won’t settle for less now from J.I.,’’ Fournier said of the expectation that was set on Monday when Isaac led the way in the Magic’s stirring 93-90 defeat of the Celtics at TD Garden.

Isaac was Orlando’s No. 6 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and is officially in his second pro season, but in many ways his teammates still view him as a rookie because of what he had to endure last year. A number of ankle injuries limited him to just 27 games and caused of a series of stops and starts that robbed him of any sort of rhythm. Now, however, he’s healthy and confident following a summer of work on his body and his game, and he’s starting to give Orlando a glimpse of his enormous potential.

Plenty of mouths had to be agape along the Magic sideline when Isaac looked nothing like the struggling rookie he was a year ago as he confidently drilled eight of 12 shots and two threes. Four of his rebounds came off the offensive glass and the Magic (2-2) were seven points better than the Celtics (2-2) when he was on the floor for 26 minutes on Monday.

Afterward, Isaac was as calm and confident as he was during the game as he predicted there’s plenty more improvement still to come from him in days, weeks, months and years ahead.

``Man, I don’t think I’ve even begun to scratch the surface,’’ Isaac said while being playfully chided by Fournier for being so humble.

``(On Monday), it was just offensive rebounding and corner threes and I just feel like I have so much more to my game,’’ he continued. ``As I continue to get more and more comfortable and more familiar with the NBA game, the more it’s going to come out. But, right now, I’m just doing what the game is giving me. If I’ve got a shot, I’m taking it and I’m bringing energy to the team, rebounding and playing the best defense that I can.’’

Magic head coach Steve Clifford was in Charlotte last season when Isaac’s rookie season was marred mostly by injuries. However, since taking over in Orlando in late May, Clifford has been nothing but impressed with the drive that Isaac has shown to get better. Be it his tireless work in the weight room to strengthen his ankles or bulk up to 226 pounds, his intelligent and inquisitive nature or his daily drills with Magic assistant coaches Pat Delany and Bruce Kreutzer, Isaac has been diligent in his pursuit of improvement, Clifford said.

``He’s a talented guy, he has a high IQ and he’s working hard,’’ said Clifford, who also regularly holds one-on-one film sessions with Isaac after practices and games. ``You can see the progress from him, and you saw it in Summer League when he was very good, and he’s continued to get better.’’

That was plenty evident in Monday’s tense fourth quarter when the ball swung to Isaac a couple of times with the game on the line. Clifford said everything he needed to know about Isaac’s mental toughness showed when he let fly a 3-pointer with 2:47 to play and Orlando up 88-81. That shot didn’t fall, but the big one did inside the final minute that quieted the crowd after the Celtics had surged to within 89-86.

``Just in terms of mentality and confidence, (Isaac) had just missed a three when his guy went under (the screen) and he shot that one with no hesitation,’’ Clifford analyzed. ``Again, all the work that he’s doing with Bruce and Pat is paying off because it shows a confidence level that he has in his offensive game.’’

As overjoyed as the Magic were about Isaac’s textbook show-and-go move that got Tatum in the air and allowed him space to drill the 19-footer, the forward himself was kicking himself after reviewing video footage. Again, Isaac picked apart arguably the finest moment of his young career and sought improvement.

``(That big shot) actually didn’t feel that great because I thought we had a layup or a dunk, but I ended up settling for a jumper,’’ Isaac said while second-guessing his own decision making. ``I didn’t even notice (the open lane) after I got past Tatum and I was like, `Oh snap, what do I do right here?’ I just pulled up and shot it and it does feel good that it went in.’’

The Magic feel good enough about Isaac’s potential that Fournier was willing to call him ``an X-factor for our season’’ before the team ever played a game. Nikola Vucevic, the longest-tenured player on the Magic, said he still thinks of Isaac as if he’s a rookie because he got so little steady playing time last season. Also, Vucevic said if Isaac can blossom into the difference-making, two-way player that team so desperately needs it will be akin to Orlando adding an offseason free agent who will show big dividends.

Isaac, himself, knows that he must stay healthy in order to be of any help to the Magic. He came through an ankle scare early in the preseason and he’s on board with the minutes’ restriction the front office and medical team have placed on him, saying: ``I want to (play more), but they’re being wise and are allowing me to take my time. It shows their care for me and I’ve just got to deal with it.’’

As for his future, Isaac said he dreams about the player that he will someday become – just as many of his teammates do when they watch him soar high for rebounds and dunks and smother foes defensively. Already, he’s grown from 6-foot-10 to 7-foot in a year’s time, and there’s still plenty of room for more growing, he said with conviction.

``I know what’s in me and how I’m going to get there,’’ he said. ``It’s day-by-day and getting more familiar with the NBA game. I didn’t play a lot last year, so I’m still getting my feet wet in a sense. So, again, I’m still taking it day by day and trying to progress so that I become the player that I’m supposed to be.’’

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.