How the Orlando Magic are failing the next Andrei Kirilenko

Jonathan Isaac has the tools to be an elite all-around defender, but the Orlando Magic appear hesitant to let him loose on every position defensively.

At 6’11” with a 7’1” wingspan, Jonathan Isaac is a ball-hawking perimeter defender for the Orlando Magic who ranks in the top 50 in individual defensive win shares for a top-10 defense in the league.

For all his success, so much more lays untapped due to Orlando’s systematic preferences that slot Isaac in an oversized frontcourt alongside Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic.

According to Basketball-Reference, Isaac has played 65.0 percent of his minutes at small forward compared to just 35.0 percent at the 4-spot and hardly any minutes at center. It makes his 1.4 steals and league-leading 2.8 blocks per game far more impressive, but raises a question regarding his ceiling and whether the Magic are helping him reach it.

Think of Draymond Green, P.J. Tucker or even Giannis Antetokounmpo, three forwards — in the traditional sense — who have found incredible amounts of success tormenting opposing centers and disrupting offenses for stretches at a time.

At 210 pounds, Isaac doesn’t have the girth to wrestle with the few elite low-posts threats remaining, but his length is ideal for the switch-heavy scheme of the NBA’s elite, the type Orlando seems hesitant to implement.

Isaac’s situation isn’t the first of its kind, but it is magnified under the new lens with which we view the NBA, which wasn’t the case more than a decade ago.

Nowadays, you might see a guy like Andrei Kirilenko guard all five players in the same possession. He was 6’9” with a 7’4” wingspan, the type coaches allow to switch every screen without the slightest hesitation.

Yet at a time where players were pigeonholed into singular roles in the mid to late 2000s, his defensive potential was limited mostly to the perimeter, where he was tasked with slowing down the elite scoring threats of his day.

Across 10 seasons with the Utah Jazz, he played just 28 percent of his minutes at power forward and hardly any at the center position.

With a 13-year career that included one All-Star appearance and three All-Defensive Team selections, the style of the era hardly served as a detriment to Kirilenko’s NBA career, who also averaged 1.4 steals and 1.8 blocks per game.

It’s hard not to wonder, though, the levels Kirilenko’s switchability could’ve unlocked had his unique physical traits been unleashed to their fullest potential similar to players of the present day.

That question could be answered by Isaac if Orlando embraced small-ball, but part of the outdated decision-making that’s stifled Isaac is based on the personnel of the roster.

It’s hard to glue either Gordon or Vucevic to the bench given their fixture in the starting lineup, the former a productive forward and the latter a first-time All-Star last season

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Yet that flawed construction falls on the part of the organization that could’ve let Vucevic walk this past summer only to give him a four-year, $100 million contract. This coming after the franchise drafted Mohamed Bamba sixth overall in 2018 instead of looking to fill a gaping hole at point guard.

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Isaac is by no means struggling in Orlando. He’s posting career-highs across the board and putting his unique frame to work. He even made a little history in early November with 13 points, 10 rebounds, six blocks, five assists and four steals, the third player to ever post such a stat line.

Like Kirilenko, he could carve out a productive NBA career at the defensive end with multiple All-Defense selections and even take home the Defensive Player of the Year award.

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But until the Magic release Isaac from the shackles of traditional defensive methods, there will likely always be a gap between his production and the best version of himself.

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