NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac: Time To Shine

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On the surface, it was a big summer for the Orlando Magic.

Aaron Gordon practically got a max contract and the highly-rated Mohamed Bamba became the shiniest addition to an already young, talented roster. But to focus your full attention on those two would be a massive disservice to Jonathan Isaac, the Magic’s next great franchise cornerstone.

Still, if you’re heading into this regular season in need of a refresher course on the burgeoning second-year professional, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. After going No. 6 overall in 2017, Isaac worked through normal rookie season yips in a reserve role but suffered a nasty ankle injury in November that shelved him for 45 of the following 48 games.

His return in March was welcomed, albeit unexplosive. Now (nearly) healthy, Isaac is currently preparing for what he hopes will be a full-on breakout season — but the forward has noted some major changes in his perspective and outlook.

“It’s huge, man, it’s just a huge difference from where I’m at mentally with it all,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “Like last year, all the nerves and anxiousness of just like: ‘Oh, media day’ — like the first one. But there’s definitely a calmness and stillness about this one and it’s easier.”

Over his 27 contests in 2017-18, Isaac posted an average of 5.4 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks in 19.9 minutes per game. All things considered — including the injury that nearly derailed the 21-year-old for an entire season — those were some encouraging returns. But in an outstanding rookie class, Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum only served to fade Isaac further into the background — well, that is, until his coming out party this summer.

Out in Los Angeles, Isaac stood out in a big way, dominating alongside the looming — and his now close friend — Bamba, tallying 14.3 points, seven rebounds, 1.3 steals and 2.7 blocks in three games. From turnaround fadeaways on the baseline to nailing jumpers off the dribble, Isaac appeared more confident and comfortable on one end, while continuing to be a rim-protecting, shot-changing pest on the other. Simply put, if people weren’t ready to talk about the 6-foot-10 hyper-mobile Isaac, they certainly are now.

“Having people talk about you always feels great, especially if it’s positive things,” Isaac joked. “Having people see growth and say: ‘Wow, we might see something here that we didn’t expect’ or ‘he’s able to do things that we didn’t expect’ — it feels great.

“It definitely adds fuel to the fire, wanting to get that place of becoming the great player that I see myself becoming. It just gives me more incentive to work harder.”

An assumed eruption for Isaac would firmly entrench him in the new-era Magic blueprint, one that includes the aforementioned Gordon — who earned a contract worth $76 million in July — and Bamba. Together, the long, athletic trio would hopefully form a terrorizing force in the Eastern Conference for years to come. And although it’s easy to pick out those with the ceilingless potential on Orlando’s roster, Isaac was quick to heap praise on the entire roster before reluctantly talking about himself.

“I hate to talk about this because I don’t want to put too much emphasis on just us three,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “[Evan, Vucevic], these guys are big-time basketball players and great players for our team. Mo is just coming into his own, I’m just coming into my own and I don’t want to leave any of those guys out — D.J. — so many guys that are going to be great for us this year. But I do definitely see that buzz around me, AG and Mo.”

But as our Spencer Davies detailed in the offseason, the optimism surrounding their newly-minted twin towers is what might just excite onlookers the most. Unsurprisingly, their on-court chemistry has soared, even boasting a fun moment in which the pair simultaneously blocked the same shot during Summer League. (“If we ever do that again — that’ll be a miracle,” Isaac laughed in recollection.) However, it’s the duo’s real-life kinship that has truly blossomed in the days since the draft. Isaac and Bamba, who go back to high school together, have spent much of their free time learning what makes each other tick.

“I would say it’s definitely two-fold — Mo is a great dude and so full of energy,” Isaac said. “And he’s really smart and just hanging out with him has been fantastic, getting to know him more, getting to know about his family and where he comes from and all that.

“It’s been good to have real heart-to-heart moments.”

Needless to say, those fun anecdotes will only stay fresh as long as the wins keep coming for a Magic team still searching for an identity. Outside of last season’s minor aberration — Orlando finished one game better than the Atlanta Hawks at 25-57 — the Magic have come in last place within the Southeast Division every year since 2012-13. That season, naturally, was the first without Dwight Howard, the franchise’s last truly dominant force in the paint and a multi-time Defensive Player of the Year winner.

While Isaac would someday like to emulate that Future Hall of Famer’s successes in blue and white, the forward showed promise of his own throughout that hampered rookie season. Had Isaac qualified, his 1.1 blocks per game would’ve ranked him just barely behind the Nets’ Jarrett Allen for the best shot-blocker in the class, and he recorded multi-block efforts in a third of his total contests. As Isaac continues to improve, so will Orlando’s overall team numbers — a should-be featured anchor in a shaky unit that ranked 11th-worst in 2017-18 for defensive rating.

According to Isaac, that recently unearthed Summer League prowess comes from a strong faith and a growing comfort.

“Me, I put it all on my faith and that is honestly where it comes from for me,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “Having that new confidence in myself, a new stillness in myself — yeah, it definitely comes from the work as well, getting in and working hard . . . But also time as well, letting time take its toll and me being more mature and comfortable with myself.”

If there really was some self-proclaimed nervousness last season, Isaac looks to have shed those insecurities today. For as frustrating as that ankle injury may have been, Isaac has come away with lessons that’ll guide the rest of his bright career. That stillness — a word he returns to time and time again — places Isaac in new territory far before he’s even scratched his on-court potential as well. In a way, those initial setbacks could galvanize an already promising prospect.

But even if Isaac wanted to rush things before — back from injury, into the spotlight — he now believes that it’ll all work itself out eventually.

“Absolutely [I wanted to rush it], and I think that’s such a part of my stillness and my comfortability and calmness in it now,” Isaac said. “It’s not on my timing, I give that all to God. It’s his will for my life and where he wants me to be is where I’m gonna be.

“All I can do is focus on how hard I work, how hard I approach each and every day — but the time will come where everything unfolds.”