ORLANDO – In recent days, superstars LeBron James and Joel Embiid and steady rotational players Brandon Ingram and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have learned something that the Orlando Magic have known for months: Jonathan Isaac’s defensive length is very much real and it’s especially impactful when foes challenge him at the rim.
Three nights after Isaac had a game-turning block of an Embiid dunk attempt, he swatted a career-best five shots on Saturday when the Magic beat the Los Angeles Lakers. Two times, Isaac blocked shots by James – on a 3-pointer from the left wing and on a driving layup at the rim. His towering height and smothering wingspan also affected James in other ways as well as the four-time MVP twice had to attempt jump shots as he was fading away from the rim. James scored 22 points and likely could have had 30-plus had he played the fourth quarter, but the fact that he made just eight of 19 shots while on the floor spoke volumes about the defensive effort put forth by Isaac.
``I wouldn’t jump to saying `giving him problems,’ but I tried my best to make him shoot jumpers and I tried my best to contest high at the rim,’’ said Isaac, who went into Sunday leading the Magic in blocked shots a game at 1.5. ``I fouled him on one when I shouldn’t have when I was there the whole play and I came down (on James’ arm) at the end. But I felt good about the way I guarded him.’’
Isaac’s teammates have said for months that he could ultimately become one of the Magic’s most impactful players because of his abilities as a shot-eraser. Prior to the season, Evan Fournier referred to Isaac as an ``X-factor’’ and Nikola Vucevic compared him to a major free-agent acquisition after the forward missed most of his rookie season because of injuries.
Other members of the Magic continue to be amazed at Isaac’s emerging potential as an elite defender.
``His intangibles are always there, he’s so smart and he really understands time and score for a young guy,’’ Magic guard Terrence Ross raved. ``I always tell him, `Don’t worry about what everybody is saying (about his injuries).’ When you get healthy you can change the whole course of our season.’’
Added veteran point guard D.J. Augustin: ``For (Isaac) to do what he did against LeBron – sometimes LeBron had to change his shot – and he did that against a guy 6-8, LeBron’s height. He can be a great defender in this league. He’s still young and has a lot of improvement to go, but this is a big thing for him.’’
MARIO MEMORIES: Had he ever gotten some stability with the coaches he played for and had he ever settled in at one position, Mario Hezonja said with conviction, he might have lived up to the expectations of being the No. 5 pick in the 20015 NBA Draft. Instead, Hezonja’s time with the Magic from 2015-16 through 2017-18 never panned out because of circumstances out of his control and uneven play throughout.
Hezonja played for head coach Scott Skiles as a rookie and was stunned when Skiles resigned. Hezonja struggled in his first season while playing for Frank Vogel, and he had difficulty getting consistent minutes last season while buried behind Aaron Gordon and Isaac at the power forward position.
In search of more consistent playing time, Hezonja left the Magic in July to sign with the New York Knicks. Not only has his play this season been inconsistent (9.2 points a game on 39.7 percent shooting and 28 percent from 3-point range), he was questionable to play Sunday in his first game back in Orlando because of what he believes to be food poisoning.
Hezonja, 23, admits that he often wonders how things might have gone differently for him in Orlando.
``Those are all my brothers out there (with the Magic), but since I was drafted everything was weird,’’ Hezonja said. ``(In his rookie season), Scott (Skiles) was really on us, but everybody thought everything was going good for us. Then, (Skiles) resigns and, boom, that’s the second hit. Then, (Frank) Vogel comes in (as head coach) and there are different expectations from each guy and they’re not on the same page with the front office and the front office is out. Then, he’s out and constantly it was like, `Whoa!’
``When we had (Elfrid Payton), Victor (Oladipo), Tobias (Harris), myself, (Aaron Gordon) and Nikola (Vucevic), you think that team today isn’t fighting at least for the Eastern Conference Finals or more?’’ Hezonja said. ``It’s sad, but it is what it is.’’
Hezonja still keeps in contact with Gordon and a few others on the Magic and said he’s pulling for them to have success. ``It’s good to see them pulling the same rope,’’ he said. ``They’re all on the same page and I can tell things are going much better organization-wise. They’re so much more tied together on the court and I can see them clicking.’’
IWUNDU’S IMPROVEMENT: A big reason for the Magic’s stellar play thus far has been the improvements made by several players over the summer. One of those players, forward Wes Iwundu, often goes overlooked because he rarely stuffs the final box score with gaudy statistics. However, Iwundu played a big role in steadying the Magic at the forward position following ankle injuries to Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac.
The second-year forward came into Sunday having started eight of the team’s first 12 games. He’s averaged 5.3 points and 2.3 rebounds thus far. He scored a season-best 11 points on Wednesday against Philadelphia and earlier in the week he tied a career best with four assists in Washington.
``I’m glad we’re talking about Wes because he gets no credit, but he’s really gotten better. I’m surprised at how much better he’s gotten,’’ Magic guard Evan Fournier said. ``The main this is his shot – he can really hit an open shot now and that makes a huge difference. His focus is really good, and he doesn’t make mistakes defensively or offensively. He’s a very, very good fit for us in the starting five.’’
While Iwundu’s shot is still very much a work in progress – he’s shooting 37.9 percent overall and 30.8 overall – he is still quite avid about improving his craft. When the Magic hold shoot-around sessions at 10 a.m. on game days, Clifford said he can always count on Iwundu being down on the floor by 9:15 so that he can get up plenty of shots before his teammates even arrive.
``You can’t get caught up with what’s in the stats or on paper; at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you got to do to help the team come out with the win,’’ Iwundu said. ``I don’t worry too much about the stat sheet or whatever. I just play my game.’’
UP NEXT: After completing their fourth back-to-back set of games of the young season, the Magic will get a day off on Monday. They will have a shoot-around session on Tuesday morning to prepare for that night’s game against the surging Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors came into Sunday leading the Eastern Conference at 13-4 and having won seven of their last 10. Superstar forward Kawhi Leonard, who Toronto acquired this past summer, leads the team in scoring at 24.8 points per game. Point guard Kyle Lowry (15.5 ppg. and 10.4 apg.) left Saturday’s win in Chicago with a twisted ankle and his status for Tuesday is up in the air.
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