By John Denton Feb. 15, 2018
ORLANDO – Before he ever played a NBA game, Orlando Magic rookie forward Jonathan Isaac vowed he would compare his progress this season not against the established stars of the game, but to those players selected in his draft class.
Isaac, the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft, looked to be one of the best players out of that deep and talented class early on, playing a central role in the Magic’s promising 8-4 start.
Then, disaster hit – both for Isaac and the Magic – and the talented, 6-foot-10 forward has had to look on as rookies such as Donovan Mitchell (Utah), Jayson Tatum (Boston), Kyle Kouzma (Los Angeles Lakers), Lauri Markkanen (Chicago), Dennis Smith Jr. (Dallas) and Bam Adebayo (Miami) have shot to fame with their stellar first seasons.
Isaac, 20, severely sprained his ankle on Nov. 11 when he landed on the foot of a player whose shot he had just swatted. He’s played only sparingly since then but is hopeful that he will be back on the floor for the Magic following the break for the NBA All-Star Game. Until then, Isaac said he’s completely comfortable watching others in his draft class shine because he knows his moments will eventually come.
``Everybody’s time is different, and everybody has a different journey to greatness and has a different road,’’ Isaac said. ``So, it’s just about being happy for guys when their numbers are called and when their time is now. My time will be later.’’
The Magic (19-39) are completely confident that Isaac’s difference-making time will come, and they took every measure to make sure the versatile forward has been patient in getting his ankle fully healthy. Isaac made two ill-fated comebacks in December before the team shut him down indefinitely on Dec. 30 to focus on strengthening his ankle and his rail-thin body.
Isaac, a deeply religious person who often speaks openly about his faith, said the time away from games has been good for his brain and body. Through vigorous work in the weight room with Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Bill Burgos, he’s added 11 pounds to bulk up to 222 pounds. And rather than allow the time away to bother him mentally, Isaac said it’s been a good refresher that stoked his hunger for basketball.
``I feel like it’s been a blessing being out and being able to slow down,’’ said Isaac, who recently gave a sermon about his faith at a local Orlando church. ``Being a rookie, you take so much onto you when you’re playing so much, and you are trying to handle life outside of basketball. But being able to slow down and really focus on my life outside of basketball and my body … has been great.’’
What should be great for the Magic will be getting a host of talented players back in the coming weeks. Nikola Vucevic (fractured left hand) and Aaron Gordon (strained left hip flexor) are hoping to be back by Orlando’s Feb. 22 home game against the New York Knicks, while Isaac and Terrence Ross (knee sprain) could soon follow. The Magic believe that the return of three starting-quality players and the team’s top reserve will give them a big boost over the final 25 games of the season.
``I’m looking forward to it, man,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said of getting four players back. ``It’s almost like we will have a new season.’’
After continuing to practice with the Magic next week, Isaac’s rookie season could potentially restart in the G League with the Lakeland Magic. President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, GM John Hammond and head coach Frank Vogel have talked to Isaac about possibly playing in the G League – with a minutes’ restriction, of course – as a way to get live game reps before returning to NBA action. Lakeland is scheduled to play at home on Feb. 21st and 23rd – sandwiched around the NBA’s Magic playing on the 22nd (vs. Knicks in Orlando) and 24th (at Philadelphia), meaning the rookie could potentially play in the G League one night and in the NBA the next if that’s what the management team so chooses for him to do.
``(His return) will be predicated on the practices that we have coming out of the break, how he feels and how his conditioning is,’’ said Vogel, who added that Isaac will have a detailed conditioning program to maintain during the all-star break. ``There’s a possibility that he plays in the G League for a couple of games to get his legs under him. He’s handled (the time away from basketball) very well. He has a great head on his shoulders. He wants to be out there (playing), but at the right pace. He understands that what we’ve done is really good for him.’’
Back at practice with the Magic the last two weeks, Isaac said his timing and rhythm came back to him quickly. His youthful exuberance and confidence are evident when he says with conviction, ``I really haven’t lost anything. … I’m back to where I was.’’ Because his game is largely based on defense and intangibles for now, Isaac feels it won’t take him long to get to a level where he can help the Magic be better.
``I’ve been with (the team) for a while now, getting back into the groove of things. I’ve been shooting the whole time pretty much that I have been out, so I haven’t lost that,’’ he said. ``Just getting back in the rhythm – it’s like riding a bicycle – and it only takes a couple of practices or a couple of times up and down to feel good again.’’
During his first 15 games of the season, Isaac was plenty good for the Magic. Not only did he average 6.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in those games, he helped the Magic to the NBA’s sixth-best defensive efficiency rating at the time. At 6-foot-10 and possessing a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Isaac is the ideal kind of player for the modern NBA what with his ability to move laterally and switch onto shooters on the perimeter, but also have the size to guard in the post.
Since Isaac went down in mid-November, rookies such Mitchell, Tatum, Kouzma, Markkanen and Smith Jr. have been able to show off their vast promise with their teams. Mitchell is the first rookie in NBA history to lead a team (Utah) in scoring during an 11-game winning streak. Meanwhile, Kouzma, Markkanen and Mitchell have all made at least 100 3-pointers – another NBA first prior to the NBA All-Star Game. That doesn’t even include Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, who is technically still a rookie after missing all of last season with an injury and is someone who has already compiled six triple-double performances.
Other rookies, such as No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball, have missed large chunks of playing time due to injuries similar to the one Isaac suffered.
Wise and mature beyond his years, Isaac said the success of his rookie peers does nothing to change his mentality about returning. He is quite confident that, in time, he will shine just as so many other rookies in the NBA have done. He stressed that he has nothing to prove at this point, and he won’t take that approach when he does finally get back on the floor.
``I feel a certain way about that (playing with something to prove) and I don’t want to go in there and take over and make it all about me,’’ vowed Isaac, who will be back at Florida State University on Saturday to be honored by the Seminoles’ basketball program. ``Guys have been working hard to try and get us where we are, and I wouldn’t want to come in and kind of destroy what they’ve been working on. I just want to help the team win. I’m obviously going to do my thing, but I want it to be inclusive.’’
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