By John Denton
Sept. 26, 2017
ORLANDO – The Orlando Magic and Jonathan Isaac understand fully that patience will be a must this season as the lanky 19-year-old transitions from college basketball to the NBA.
Then again, when Isaac shows the kind of flashes that he did on Tuesday in the Magic’s first practice of training camp, those heavily invested in the team can’t help but dream about all of the ways that the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft will help the franchise in the days, weeks, months and years to come.
“Really good for a first practice and made some rookie mistakes, which is to be expected, but he did a lot of positive things,’’ Magic coach Frank Vogel raved. “It just reaffirmed our excitement about him and what he can be. Obviously, it’s going to be a long road with him being so young, but he showed some of his talent with his length and ability to get deflections. And he’s got a good feel on the offensive end of the floor. So we’re high on what he can be.’’
Isaac, the former Florida State University standout, was one of many positives to come out of Orlando’s first of two practices on Tuesday. Unlike in years past when the Magic would work on its practice court, the team conducted Tuesday’s session on the main court at the Amway Center. Vogel is hoping that practicing in the main arena will help the team’s influx of new players get used to the sightlines in the state-of-the-art facility. Also, there’s a belief that working in the main arena daily might help the Magic better the 16-25 home record posted last season.
“It’s a good setup and it’s nice for training camp to have something different because some teams go to different places and they did a good job of giving us something different,’’ said center Nikola Vucevic, the Magic’s longest-tenured player. “I liked it and it’s definitely warmer than the practice gym and that’s good.’’
Practicing at the Amway Center was also a new thing to newcomers Jonathon Simmons, Marreese Speights, Shelvin Mack and Arron Afflalo – four of the free agents that the Magic signed in the offseason to bolster the roster with some toughness and experience. For Simmons, who left the San Antonio Spurs for the Magic, the day was about starting a new chapter in his career.
“It felt good, it’s a learning process and it’s going to take time, but I felt really good about today,’’ said Simmons, who morphed into a standout last spring with the gritty defense he played on MVP runner-up James Harden in the Western Conference playoffs. “I hope winning rubs off and the will to win. And the passion that anybody brings should be contagious for this team.’’
For Isaac, it was his first time being on the Amway Center’s primary parquet floor for something other than a photo shoot. He admitted that there were a couple of times during the 2 ½-hour practice that he looked around the facility and marveled at its size.
“It’s definitely huge and it makes you feel small a little bit,’’ said Isaac, who is listed at 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds. “(The first practice) was exactly what I expected it to be and I expected to have my nerves. But it definitely felt good to run up and down a little. But once we got more into it and I got my legs under me and we went five-on-five, I started to calm down. It was good.’’
In addition to using his 7-foot wingspan to get into the passing lane and deflect several passes, Isaac showed tremendous poise and maturity in understanding how to attack opposing defenses. On one particular pick-and-roll play, Isaac came off a Bismack Biyombo screen, drew the defense to him and then deftly dropped a pocket pass to the cutting big man for a dunk. That play, in particular, opened the eyes of Vucevic.
“He had some nice plays today and you can tell that he knows how to play,’’ Vucevic gushed. “He had a couple of really nice pocket passes and I tink he’s going to be a really good player. He’s young and he’s got to work on his body a little bit, but I think he’s going to be really good for us for a long time.’’
When word of the praise given to Isaac by Vogel and Vucevic reached the rookie, he flashed a wide, toothy grin. He admitted that it was especially flattering to him – even if he doesn’t necessarily agree yet.
“It definitely makes you feel good,’’ he said, “but I wouldn’t think (he has an advanced game). But if they said that, I guess so. It’s just a feel thing. I just sometimes see those little pocket passes.’’
The Magic fully plan to take a planned and patient approach with Isaac, knowing there are going to be plenty of times when his spindly body and limited experience are going to give him problems on nights when he is playing against veterans some 10 years older than him. Isaac joked on Tuesday that one thing he’s learned already is that if he doesn’t work extra hard when boxing out bigger players his rail-thin frame will “end up on the baseline.’’
The only firm goal set so far for Isaac by President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman – the man responsible for drafting the versatile big man – is to be “the hardest worker on the team.’’
Mature mentally beyond his years and completely comfortable in his own skin, Isaac knows that being patient will be difficult at times this season because he has a will to be great. He said he will continue to hold himself to high standards – even in practice sessions such as Tuesday’s when those around him thought he performed well for a rookie.
“How fast I was picking up on the pick-and-roll defense (was a plus), and that’s something I want to improve upon still and get where (coaches) don’t have to talk to me after the drill,’’ he said. “(The veteran players) are definitely looking out for me and anytime they see me make a mistake they are in my ear so the coaches don’t have to be. And watching them as well, that helps, too.’’
One area where Isaac’s youth showed was in the nerves that he experienced on Monday night, just hours before his first official practice as a NBA player.
He said the magnitude of the moment hit him during Monday’s Media Day when he put on his jersey for one of the first times and later that night he was flooded with congratulatory messages from friends and family. Getting to sleep on Monday night was something of an issue because of his youthful exuberance.
“I probably stayed up a little later than I wanted to because I was just thinking about everything,’’ Isaac said with a chuckle. “But after that I was able to get some good sleep.’’
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.