By John Denton
Oct. 9, 2017
DALLAS – For Orlando Magic rookie Jonathan Isaac, every mile’s a memory along this NBA journey and on Monday the 20-year-old neophyte forward passed another landmark accomplishment.
With Orlando resting three key rotational players and starters Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross nursing minor injuries, Isaac notched the first start of his NBA career. Sure, it’s just the preseason and the games technically don’t even count yet, but to the No. 6 pick put a lot of stock in Monday’s memorable moment.
“It was a lot of things (on his mind) and a whole bunch of emotions going through me and I really had to balance them,’’ Isaac admitted after the Magic dropped a 99-96 preseason decision to the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. “It was nerves and all that stuff. I can’t wait until it’s a home game (in Orlando) and I get that first start. I can’t even imagine how I’m going to be feeling.’’
The Magic (2-2) have promised to proceed slowly and with great patience with the 6-foot-10, 210-pound Isaac this season as his body and his game mature to NBA standards. However, the rookie played so well in his first three preseason games (10 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.7 blocks a night) that head coach Frank Vogel felt comfortable enough to start Isaac in his fourth-ever NBA game on Monday in Dallas.
Monday’s game certainly presented challenges to Isaac – who finished with five points, two rebounds, two assists and two blocks in 24 minutes – as he was matched up with Dallas legend Dirk Nowitzki (10 points and six rebounds) at times and predominantly against high-scoring forward Harrison Barnes (14 points and four rebounds). Isaac, who remarkably seems comfortable at the professional level already, is delighted that he has already earned a measure of trust from his Magic teammates and coaches. Vogel said as much last week when he pronounced the rookie’s defense as “NBA-ready’’ already.
“I was thinking about (guarding Nowitzki) before the game, but I was really trying to focus on Harrison. But it definitely felt surreal trying to block Dirk’s shot,’’ Isaac said. “(Barnes) is tough and I’m still learning how to guard guys like that the right way, coming off screens and not getting those rookie fouls. But I want to guard anybody and everybody and learn how guys play. I’ve got to learn the tricks of the NBA and how to be a great defender.’’
Said Vogel of his prized rookie, who stuffed a Barnes’ dunk attempt at the rim: “Defensively, he’s special and he keeps showing it. The great thing about him is that he really cares. Every time he gets scored upon, he wears it. You combine that with his natural ability and he has a chance to be pretty special on the defensive end. He showed some of that tonight.’’
Orlando’s D.J. Augustin, who has benefitted greatly from the continuity of having the same Magic coaching staff in place a second straight season, shot the ball well and finished with 24 points. He repeatedly burned the Mavs with nine of 14 shooting and six of 10 accuracy from 3-point range. His shooting prompted Dallas coach Rick Carlisle to playfully tell Vogel, “you should play Augustin every minute of every game,’’ along the sidelines during the game.
Said Augustin: “Everybody is trying to find their groove and get a rhythm for the real season and it feels good being out there playing hard and building that chemistry. It’s tough when you are changing coaches and systems (every year) and we’re playing a different way this year. I just feel more comfortable. When you are in the same system every year you just get more and more comfortable.’’
Monday’s loss for the Magic was somewhat predictable after they rested leading-scorer Aaron Gordon, starting point guard Elfrid Payton and reserve big man Bismack Biyombo. Orlando also gave Fournier (sore ankle) and Ross (mild hamstring strain) the night off with minor aches and pains that never would have prevented them from playing in a regular-season game, Vogel said.
The game was the second meeting between the two teams in five nights. Orlando whipped Dallas 112-89 in a game where the Mavs left their seven most veteran players and head coach Rick Carlisle in Texas because of either rest or illness.
It was somewhat fitting that Isaac got his first start on Monday considering that point guard Dennis Smith Jr. was across the way starting for the Mavs. Smith said on Monday morning that he was “fairly certain’’ that the Magic would select him at No. 6 in last June’s NBA Draft. Instead, the Magic passed on the explosive point guard to take Isaac, a versatile player who they feel has both the lateral quickness and difference-making length to be a prototypical defender in today’s small-ball NBA.
Following relatively quiet performances in the first half, Isaac and Smith put on especially impressive performances in the third period. Isaac had a baseline jumper, a floater in the lane and a 3-pointer in one three-minute stretch, while Smith Jr. buried two deep threes over outstretched arms of Magic defenders.
Smith Jr., who will undoubtedly be linked to Isaac for years because of their draft-pick positioning, made seven of 15 shots and two of six 3-pointers and finished with 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds in 26 minutes. Meanwhile, Isaac made two of five shots and one of three threes. His two blocked shots give him seven in four preseason games thus far.
“Dennis is my dude and he is so talented and had a good game tonight,’’ said Isaac, who noted that he gets more fired up facing players from his draft class than NBA legends such as Nowitzki. “When I switched onto him or met him at the rim, I got a little more amped. So that was really fun to me.’’
The Magic played well enough offensively, making 36 of 87 shots and 17 of 42 3-pointers, but they failed a major test that Vogel wanted to see as it relates to defensively stopping the Mavs. Dallas hit 43.8 percent of its shots and had 11 3-pointers.
Jonathon Simmons, who started at shooting guard in place of Ross, scored 19 points by connecting on two 3-pointers and five free throws. Mario Hezonja, who spent time on Monday at small forward and power forward chipped in 10 points and seven rebounds despite struggles on the defensive end of the floor. Hezonja drilled a 3-pointer with four seconds to play to draw the Magic within 97-96 of the Mavs, but he couldn’t connect just before the final buzzer on a three that would have knotted the score.
“Up and down, but he had some good stretches,’’ Vogel said of Hezonja’s effort on Monday. “He’s still got to just play because he’s a young player. He missed the whole summer and he just has to play the game.’’
Veteran center Marreese Speights, signed by the Magic because of his ability to stretch the floor offensively, scored 15 points with four 3-pointers. After one sequence in the third quarter when he drilled consecutive threes, Speights playfully acted as if he was putting an imaginary gun back into his proverbial holster on his hip.
Orlando wraps up its only back-to-back of the preseason on Tuesday when it faces the Spurs in San Antonio. It will be something of a homecoming for Simmons, who played his first two seasons in the NBA in San Antonio. Simmons entered last summer as a restricted free agent, but the Spurs surprisingly renounced their rights to him when they couldn’t come to a contractual agreement and the Magic pounced on the talented two-way guard. Orlando signed Simmons, who had the NBA’s best individual defensive rating last season, to fortify their depth and defense.
“I love Texas – not just San Antonio – but I always love going back to Texas,’’ said Simmons, a native of Houston who has never lived outside of the Lone Star state prior to signing with the Magic. “I come to work and (have) no emotions (returning to San Antonio). I’ll just be happy to see those (Spurs players) and the staff as well.’’
The Magic will conclude the exhibition season on Friday at the Amway Center when they host LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Magic’s regular-season opener will be at the Amway Center on Oct. 18 when they face the rival Miami Heat.
Orlando had few answers in the first half and trailed 55-48 at intermission. Dallas shot 53.3 percent with four 3-pointers in the first two quarters to gash the Magic. The seemingly ageless Nowitzki scored all 10 of his points in the first half of the game.
The Magic stormed into the lead at 62-61 midway through the third quarter after Augustin drilled his fifth 3-pointer in seven tries. However, the lead would be short-lived and Dallas held a 76-72 edge heading into the fourth period.
As for Isaac, he knows that his progress this season won’t always be linear because of the pitfalls that often trip up NBA rookies. He will have to battle the fatigue of the 82-game schedule and when veteran foes and referee pick on him because of his rookie status. But he knows the Magic have his best interests at heart over the long haul and will let him progress at his own rate.
“It’s great to me that they want to give me more (responsibility), but they haven’t put any expectations on me and haven’t said for me to come in and do this and do that,’’ he said with confidence. “They just want me to explore everything on my own. As I get more confident and comfortable on my own, they are giving me more.’’
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