The Orlando Magic are quietly rising, and Jonathan Isaac has been leading the way as he begins to break out.
The 2019 NBA Trade Deadline brought some renewed optimism for the Orlando Magic, as they pulled off a great trade to acquire point guard Markelle Fultz. Since then the team is undefeated, ripping off three straight wins to put them at 25-32, two games out of a playoff spot.
This marks the first time since the Dwight Howard era that the team has been in a playoff race this late in the season. Adding Fultz was a nice boost for the fanbase, but it is unclear if he will even suit up this season, so he’s not the reason for the uptick in fortunes.
All-Star Nikola Vucevic has been a steady presence, but there is nothing new in that. He has been fantastic all season. However, second-year forward Jonathan Isaac is leading the charge recently, showing the first signs that he is one day going to be the player that the front office and fans hoped he would be when he was taken with the sixth pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Isaac always had the potential to be a great player in the NBA, and although he is nowhere close to being there yet, February has seen him take the first substantial leap forward in his career, with Isaac himself explaining recently what has sparked this surge. The Magic have won four of their last five games (and five in six if you include the Jan. 31 win over the Indiana Pacers).
During that span, Isaac has helped in a number of keys areas, but just being willing to take on the responsibility of dragging the team forward alone has been great to see. He has been more aggressive and assertive on both ends of the court.
Although it is hard to single out plays that illustrate this, there are two that give you a snapshot into how well he has being playing recently. That these occurred on both ends of the ball shows that Isaac is developing into a leader both offensively and defensively, which is exactly what they Magic need.
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First up is how he played offensively in an impressive road win against the Milwaukee Bucks. Although they were without Giannis Antetokounmpo and on the second night of a back-to-back, the Magic still did really well to come in and dominate a lackluster opponent.
Isaac was instrumental in this, putting up a team-high 17 points. What stood out, though, was how aggressive he was around the rim. On at least three occasions, he took the ball and flushed it down hard, either as a result of a pass or off the back of a missed effort by a teammate.
That kind of aggression hasn’t been there from Isaac, and given his patchy injury history during his rookie campaign (he appeared in only 27 games, starting 10), perhaps that is to be expected. A switch was flipped in Milwaukee, however, and it was what the team needed to ensure there was no comeback from the Bucks.
On the other end of the court, Isaac managed to block the up-and-coming John Collins of the Atlanta Hawks no less than three times in one possession. To do so without fouling was even more impressive, and typified the effort he’s playing with on this end of the court, which is rubbing off on others.
With head coach Steve Clifford preaching defensive values from the opening game of the season, it’s great to see Isaac clearly improving in this area at a rapid pace, and even more so when you consider Vucevic, although improved in this area, isn’t known for protecting the paint and shutting out opponents.
Another promising development is Isaac’s ability to shoot from deep. It was said coming out of college that he could be a stretch-4 in the truest sense of the world, but early in his career that was failing to translate on the court. This season he has shot a poor 28.5 percent from 3-point range.
Over the last three games, however, that number has jumped up to 50 percent, with Isaac going 7-for-14 as the Magic won all three contests. Defenses are still leaving him open to see if he can beat them with that shot, but it won’t be long before doing so will no longer be an option.
This is great news for the organization going forward, as it would give Aaron Gordon more lanes to drive and guys like Terrence Ross more room to operate. Even Fultz, once he is healthy, will benefit from playing with a forward like Isaac. The pick-and-roll options the two could roll out would add a whole new wrinkle to the Magic’s offensive game plan.
Over the last six games, the Magic have had a defensive rating of 102.1. This is the second-best mark in the league, behind a Pacers outfit (97.8) they beat during that stretch. Isaac’s contribution to this number cannot be underestimated.
He has averaged 2.8 blocks per game during that stretch. Blocks are only one small indicator of how a player is performing defensively, but to put that into perspective, that number would lead the league if it were stretched out across an entire season (Myles Turner of the Pacers sits atop the rankings with 2.7 per contest).
The offense hasn’t been nearly as good (18th, 110.7), but Isaac has scored 17 points in his last two outings, one shy of his career high to date. The 13.4 points per game he is averaging in February are way up on where he’s at for the season too (8.7), so he is carrying a bigger load on this end too.
All of which is to say that Jonathan Isaac is beginning to really emerge for the Orlando Magic, and the timing could not be better. Their attempts to make the playoffs were faltering, but he has stepped in to act as a spark recently to keep their postseason hopes alive.
Most people are going to continue sleeping on Isaac, and three games is a small sample size, but all signs point towards him continuing to grow into one of the Magic’s leaders and potentially the most valuable player in their young core. Best to realize this now before everybody else does.