By John Denton
July 7, 2017
ORLANDO – Jonathan Isaac is still three months shy of his 20th birthday and he has the look to match his youth with a bright, fresh-faced smile, the unruly hair and a rail-thin body that can seemingly go forever.
But for all that youth, there’s a distinct maturity to Isaac – both in his game and his away-from-basketball persona. In big spots on the court, he plays with a poise and a patience of someone much older than 19 years old. And because he has long been considered to be one of the best players in his age group, Isaac is completely comfortable in his own skin and certainly not lacking for confidence and charisma.
Though Isaac’s run in the Mountain Dew Orlando Pro Summer League was cut short because of a mild hip strain, encouraging traits about how he performs under pressure and how he handles himself off the court impressed the brass of the Orlando Magic tremendously. They liked how he came from the weak side to fearlessly stuff shots at the rim and how he understood the concept of offensive spacing and knowing when to cut to the basket. They enjoyed his eagerness to drill a 3-pointer for his first pro points, the time he ignored the pressure of the moment and ended a game with a buzzer-beating jumper and also his willingness to share the ball with his teammates. And when he was out of the final two games, Isaac found ways to keep himself engaged mentally by being dialed in during film sessions, asking questions of the coaches on the bench and encouraging others on the summer squad.
“That (maturity) was something we saw from him coming into the draft,’’ said Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman, the man who made the call on picking Isaac No. 6 overall. “I think that he was unfairly criticized (while at Florida State University) for not having the aggressiveness at times that we had heard about, but I think a lot of that is just him playing the right way. He makes good basketball decisions, he makes others better and he’s a very intelligent player. So, as his body matures and he gets a better understanding of what the NBA game is about, I think his potential is great.’’
NBA coaches almost universally despise the word “potential,’’ often remarking sarcastically that, “potential is what gets coaches fired.’’ Combining potential with hard work, dedication and maturity is how players extract their maximum and the Magic are certainly betting that Isaac has that rare combination so that he will someday become an elite player.
The 6-foot-11, 210-pounder is well aware that even though he has roughly 10 weeks until the start of training camp, there is no time for rest now. He knows that he must work harder than ever to strengthen his body for the rigors ahead of playing an 82-game season and facing grown men on a nightly basis.
“I’m excited to get back on the floor and get back to working out,’’ Isaac said, noting that the left hip he strained on Monday has already made significant progress. “It’s just like anything (in life) – the more you do it the more comfortable you get with it. That’s what happened to me this week (in three summer league games).
“Off the court and on the court, I can watch more film and get more acclimated to the (NBA) game,’’ Isaac added, referring to his summer project. “I think I can make a really big jump.’’
THE BODY ISSUE
The first jump that the Magic are hoping for is in Isaac’s blossoming body. He’s always had a fast metabolism, and even though he’s gone from 6-foot-5 as a 15-year-old to almost 6-foot-11 as a 19-year-old, he’s remained incredibly thin.
Doctors have told Isaac and his family that his growth plates are still “wide open’’ and that he has the potential to grow to 7-foot-1 – six inches taller than his father or anyone else in his family – and the Magic want to make sure he has the core strength to handle his sprouting size.
“Obviously, he’s got to get stronger because he’s going to be a youngster out there in a league of men,’’ Magic head coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s got to get his core stronger. That’s the biggest thing for him because he’s going to get banged around by some grown men this year. Everybody wants to come in with their (big) shoulders and the bench press and their beach body, but for him it’s really about his core and trying to accelerate that as quickly as possible.’’
The Magic already have plans to get Isaac started on a strength-and-conditioning program so that “he grows physically the right way,’’ Weltman noted. Trying to put on weight – and more importantly strength – is nothing new to Isaac, who has worked to do just that ever since he started to emerge as a top basketball prospect while in high school in Naples, Fla. He is extremely hopeful that with the help of Magic strength coaches Bill Burgos and Daniel Erickson that he will be able to make a big leap forward physically in the months before the start of training camp.
“It’s a process, it takes a minute and it’s not something that happens in a short amount of time,’’ said Isaac, who averaged 10.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in three summer league games. “It’s about staying consistent and being disciplined. Having a fast metabolism, I gain weight quickly and I lose weight quickly. So if I’m not disciplined, I’ll lose what I’ve been trying to gain, so it’s just about staying disciplined and using my fast metabolism to my advantage.’’
VOGEL IS ECSTATIC
Like most with the Magic, Vogel is well aware that if Isaac can combine his jaw-dropping physical gifts – the 7-foot-3 wingspan, the 9-foot-2 standing reach and the 38-inch vertical leap, to name a few – with his advanced maturity and blossoming body that great things could be ahead for the versatile forward.
A defensive guru throughout his time in the NBA, Vogel had to salivate at one sequence that Isaac delivered during summer league play last week. As the Miami Heat ran a pick and roll play at the top of the key, Isaac switched men and picked up the point. Sensing he had a quickness advantage, Gian Clavell tried driving past Isaac only to be summarily cut off and stopped in his tracks. Clavell then tried getting off a jump shot – one that was spiked backward volleyball style by the long-armed Isaac.
That kind of defensive versatility and understanding was something that Vogel spoke often about last season and something that is an absolute must now that the NBA is going more and more to small ball. In Isaac, he sees someone who already possesses a great maturity to go along with that youthful enthusiasm.
“He’s got a great skill set already for his age and his length defensively is impressive. You can be long and unathletic, but this kid has got really good feet and he’s shown me a lot of things defensively with the ability to stay with guys and contain the basketball,’’ Vogel said. “He seems to have a good feel. There’s obviously a lot still to be covered as we get him into training camp and into games against real competition, but there’s definitely a lot there to be excited about for our fans.’’
Vogel, too, sounds like something of a fan when expressing his excitement over being the coach who will have the opportunity to mold and shape a 19-year-old with loads of star potential.
“I’m ecstatic about what the next couple of years of working with Jonathan Isaac is going to look like,’’ Vogel admitted unabashedly. “He’s got an impressive way about him, a great spirit about him, he’s very eager and humble and he’s got ability. When you have a guy like that who has all of that you’ve got something to be really excited about.’’
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.