By John Denton
Oct. 2, 2017
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – On Tuesday, baby-faced Orlando Magic rookie Jonathan Isaac will hit a major milestone when he moves out of his teenaged years and celebrates his 20th birthday.
However, tonight’s milestone might ultimately prove to be the more momentous moment for the highly touted forward out of Florida State University.
When the Magic face the Grizzlies in Memphis (8 p.m. ET), the 6-foot-10, 210-pound Isaac will play in his first NBA game.
Whereas the preseason opener for both teams will serve as little more than a light scrimmage and a dress rehearsal for many of the veteran players, Isaac heads into the night with a child-like enthusiasm and excitement. In many ways, this first preseason game will serve as the start to what Isaac – the No. 6 pick in last June’s NBA Draft – hopes will be a long and successful journey.
“I’ve been trying to not think about it as much as possible, but I can’t wait to get to (the game) and see what happens,’’ Isaac said. “I’ve got so many emotions in my head about (the first game), so I just want it to hurry up and get here and see what happens.’’
What the Magic want to happen is that they start laying the foundation for how they want this season to play out – beginning with this opener at Fed Ex Forum in downtown Memphis. Fox Sports South will televise the game in Memphis, but the only live coverage in Central Florida will be via the Magic Radio Network.
Looking to make major strides that will vault themselves back into contention, the Magic are hopeful that their young core will show further improvement and added veterans will bolster the defense. For the first time in years, Orlando should be able to get a bump off its continuity what with head coach Frank Vogel back and much of the team’s core still in place.
Heading into the preseason opener, Vogel stressed that it’s never too early in the season to start laying the foundation for how the team wants to play faster on offense and more aggressive defensively.
“We’re going to try and implement everything that we’ve been building toward since late last season with our style of play and throughout training camp this year,’’ said Vogel, who squad switched to a faster brand of small ball over the final 24 games of last season. “We’re going to be doing more switching (defensively). To counter the offenses of today’s game, you’ve got to do more switching than we’ve done in the past. That’s what we want to be defensively.’’
Isaac, someone who is capable of guarding wing players and still has the height and length to body up bigger players in the post, could be the poster boy for versatility that the Magic want to have all over the floor. He wasted no time in opening eyes of his coaches and teammates in training camp with his 7-foot wingspan – something that allows him to live in the passing lanes and contest shots. He said those physical gifts and his focus on getting stops have him further along defensively thus far as he transitions from the college game to the NBA.
“I’d say defensively because I have good defensive instincts, but I’m still not where I want to be in terms of deciphering reads, talking and calling out screens,’’ Isaac said. “I expected it to be tough and a lot of information to be thrown at me and I just have to understand as much as I can, look over it again after practice and watch film.’’
Isaac said one of the things that struck him right away in terms of the differences between college basketball and the NBA was the overall skill level among all players. Facing off daily against the likes of Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross and Evan Fournier has already rammed home the point that he is facing some of the most talented players in the world.
“It’s just so fast and everybody is so talented. You miss a read and it’s a knockdown three,’’ Isaac said in amazement. “It’s like night and day in terms of the ability of these guys. I was guarding Terrence and you slip up one time and he’s going to knock down a three or get to the basket and someone else will be left open.’’
Heading into the draft, the Magic loved the fact that Isaac was more likely to opt for the right play instead of forcing something that wasn’t available or attempting a high-risk option. Those instincts have shown themselves in training camp as Isaac has been adept at making the extra pass and creating open shots for others out of pick-and-roll sets.
Isaac has done all of that while being forced to learn two positions. His combination of quickness, height and length and smarts has led to the Magic experimenting with him at small forward and power forward. On the wings, he often has to chase shooters around screens and deny drives, while at power forward he has to think more about boxing out for rebounds and be a long-armed deterrent at the rim.
“The most difficult part is learning the (small forward) and (power forward) positions because they have kind of being interchanging me,’’ Isaac said. “There are different reads guarding the two positions, so I’d say that’s the hardest part. … I think you’ve got to be physical with both positions even when you are running over and under screens. They’re just completely different (positions) in the NBA game and it’s like flipping the switch. At (small forward), you can’t go under the first screen and at (power forward) you are staying back more and letting them come to you. So it’s just a matter of switching back and forth depending on which position I am playing.’’
Isaac said something that has helped ease his transition has been the sound advice that he’s gotten from management and teammates. Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman and GM John Hammond have talked to Isaac about staying patient and positive, while forward Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier have been more technical with their advice. Those words of encouragement have helped him not be so critical of himself.
“Everybody seems to be pleased with me, but I’m the one who is the most not pleased with myself,’’ he said with a laugh. “My teammates have just been telling me to not take myself too seriously, don’t press, just play and focus on the process and the rest will take care of itself. And in terms of the game, just get there and see what happens instead of overthinking it.’’
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