Jonathan Isaac’s NBA journey began inauspiciously as the number six overall pick by the Orlando Magic. He looked to be at risk of becoming yet another highly talented prospect drafted by a losing franchise whose career becomes a study in disappointment and squandered potential. Two years later, after a breakout season by Nikola Vucevic powered the Magic to a surprising playoff berth, it is time to consider whether or not Jonathan Isaac can be part of a brighter future for Orlando.
Isaac had an exceptional freshman season at Florida State before being drafted, averaging 12 points and 7.8 rebounds in only 26.6 minutes per game. He also recorded a scintillating shooting line of 50.8 FG%, / 34.8 3PT% / 78.0 FT% while amassing more blocks than turnovers. Isaac was part of a big frontcourt in college, prompting optimism that he would able to thrive in the already crowded Orlando frontcourt alongside of Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic.
Jonathan Isaac’s first season was uneven, as might be expected for a 19-year-old with a thin physical profile. He recorded a Position-Adjusted Offensive Efficiency below 28% while contributing only 37% of the expected Offensive Rebounding Value for his position. He got pushed around, and it showed. Compared with the quality of his shot attempts, Isaac’s shooting ability was 15% below expected value, indicating that he needed to improve at finishing.
As a rookie, Isaac did show promise on the defensive end. Combining his long and rangy frame with good athleticism, he saved the Magic 28.6 points per 48 without including defensive rebounds, placing him in the 98th percentile of the league. While he had less impact on the defensive boards than we would expect given his size, he generated 74.9 “Other Stops” (a term I use to encapsulate steals, blocks, charges drawn, and defensive loose ball recoveries). In terms of shot defense, Isaac was 32% above position average in defending post ups and 11% above position average in defending handoffs, but struggled in pick-and-roll coverage both when he was responsible for the ballhandler (5.5% below average) and the screener (14.3% below average).
Entering his sophomore campaign with a lot to prove, Isaac responded in a big way. Increasing his offensive rebounding value to the meet the average value for his position helped Isaac produce 20.4 points per 48 when considering his total offensive contribution, placing him in the 45th percentile of the league and representing a sizable improvement on his rookie campaign. By taking more of his shots at the rim and from 3-point range and more than doubling his shooting efficiency from midrange, combined with an increased free throw rate, Isaac was able to raise his True Shooting Percentage drastically from 46.5% as a rookie to 53.7% last year.
On defense, Isaac led the Magic’s rotation players with 23.0 Points Saved per 48 Minutes. Despite playing far more minutes, Isaac was still able to rank in the 85th percentile of the league per minute and in the 91st percentile in total Points Saved. Isaac recorded an impressive 210 Other Stops, and also led the team with 57.2 Uncategorized Opponent Turnovers, once again showcasing his elite quickness.
Being compared with defensive 4’s last season instead of against 3’s as in his rookie campaign highlighted growth areas for Isaac on the defensive end. While he was above average for a 4 in defending spot up jumpers, he fell below average against pick-and-rolls, post ups, handoffs, off-ball screens, and in isolation. He was much more effective covering the ballhandler on pick-and-rolls than covering the roll man (94.9% of position average to 74.8%), highlighting his positional quickness but also the need for continued improvement in covering two-man actions on the NBA level. Placing a heavier load on Isaac brought into more stark relief both Isaac’s strengths and his weaknesses, as he was only able to force 86.1% of the average amount of misses from the post compared with other defensive 4’s.
Putting it all together, Isaac was worth 4.2 wins last season with a production rate just above league average at .101 wins per 48 minutes. His Total Efficiency was only 48%, a very respectable improvement from his 40% mark as a rookie but still slightly below average.
Where might Jonathan Isaac go from here? His improved efficiency marks indicate that Isaac is well-suited to his role, and as he continues to progress we can anticipate even more efficient performances from him in seasons to come. Moving forward, it is crystal clear that Isaac will often need to function as a defensive 4; Aaron Gordon is under contract long term, while Vucevic and Mo Bamba will be slated to cover all of the center minutes. Since Khem Birch has not yet shown enough offensive flexibility to be viable alongside another big man, it is imperative for Isaac to be able to hold up in the post at times while also switching effectively onto smaller ballhandlers. I see Isaac’s lateral quickness as a welcome and natural antidote for Aaron Gordon’s limitations as a defensive wing. The best possible future version of the Magic probably features Isaac and Gordon working in tandem with Gordon carrying more scoring and playmaking responsibility while Isaac functions as a weakside shot-blocker and help defender while chasing quicker opponents for stretches.
To move forward, Isaac needs to continue to make gains with his jumper on offense and to make better reads in pick-and-roll coverage on defense. If Orlando is to establish themselves as a perennial playoff team, Jonathan Isaac’s continued development will be a key factor. If he cannot make the needed strides, the Magic may find their ceiling much lower than they currently hope it will be.