By Fawzan Amer
After an injury-plagued last few seasons, the former sixth overall pick in 2017 looks ready for a fresh chapter — and he has shown over the past week why when healthy he is highly regarded around the Magic facility. He has the talent to help break Orlando out of the playoff drought it has been stuck in since trading Nikola Vucevic. Jonathan Isaac, a budding star, established as a defensive force has been fighting a minutes restriction through the course of the season with the shackles slowly coming off as of late. After logging consecutive 20+ minutes in game(s) Jamahl Mosley opted to start Isaac on the second night of a back-to-back for the first time since January 1st, 2020 against the Washington Wizards.
His first start of the season began with a thunderous slam (literally). On the first possession of the game, Jamahl Mosley drew up a twist on one of Orlando's most common plays: "Delay Chicago backdoor alley-oop".
Despite being on the second night of a back-to-back, the team — with added energy from Isaac inserted in the lineup — played with added fire on both sides of the floor. At 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he has a raw combination of absurd length, athleticism, and skill. Over the course of his first appearance as a starter, Isaac was continuously seen giving fits to All-Star guard Luka Dončić. Isaac can comfortably slide among all three frontcourt positions on defense. He went from full-court pressing Kevin Durant the night prior, to chasing Dončić — an über-skilled big guard — around the perimeter. Players have shot 38.9% from the floor when defended by Jonathan Isaac this season — the 2nd-lowest dFG% in the NBA this season. A similar trend appeared isolated against Luka near the free-throw line extended forcing an 18' foot turnaround fadeaway jumper that hit the front of the iron, bouncing out to its inevitable doom.
The Mavericks quickly realized that they weren't going to look to exploit countering Isaac's length by running an identical play they ran on their first set of the game for a lob of their own. This time Isaac went level with Luka in his stance, pressuring him with his body and using his lengthy wingspan to meet him at the release point to cause an airball. "He allows us to be super aggressive because he covers so much up," said Moritz Wagner.
The starting rotation of Suggs, Banchero, Wagner, Carter Jr and Isaac jumped out to a double-digit lead following a 16-0 run. Unfortunately, a night that started with celebration turned quickly as it was reported that Jonathan Isaac's night would be short-lived at eight minutes.
"We're always gonna manage and look at how they're responding to coming into back-to-backs. Part of that was him being on a back-to-back, with it being one of the first ones he's played in. Our job, as a group, as a team, as a staff is to make sure we're looking at the big picture and not just that moment," said Jamahl Mosley.
“I’m telling him [Jamahl Mosley] I’m ready to go," refuted Jonathan Isaac. Feeling the pressure cast on him from a majority of the fans from the inconsistency of minutes distributed to Isaac, Mosley added: "I love his ambition. I love the fact that he wants more, more time, more minutes, and wants to play more. I rather have to say slow down then speed up." Having closed in consecutive games against Minnesota and last night against Detroit "slowing down" is what Isaac has done to opposing offenses. Checking in at the final five-minute frame of regulation with the score 103-95, the Pistons only scored 4 points for the remainder of the contest. Minnesota shot 25 percent in the fourth quarter tallying a mere 15 points in 12 minutes as they watched a once 17-point lead fade into the abyss.
Though the most intriguing thing about Isaac is his defensive versatility on this road trip, Coach Mosley has expanded Isaac's offensive role, putting him in greater command over the past few games. His utilization offensively was seen most in San Antonio where the Magic countered with his length as a screener to create added penetration and space for easier buckets inside. He combines perfect technique with a cerebral understanding of angles and timing required to free up opportunities for himself and his teammates. Combined, it makes him the immovable object capable of slowing down any defender for just enough time.
Orlando went into their "Stack" set twice to close the first half in San Antonio. In the first clip, the Spurs defend the stack action with drop coverage. The play which is most commonly run to generate alley-oops allows the newly named All-Star Paolo Banchero to settle into a routine turnaround jumper.
"We know [the action] pulls Wembanyama from the rim," said Jamahl Mosley. Sure enough, the next time Orlando ran it as Isaac set a ball screen, his defender was dropped back to the free throw line. Then, as he ghosted the ball screen, Joe Ingles set a back-screen to free up Isaac for the lob. "Just being able to manipulate the defense is what we try to do," added the third-year head coach.
Since the game in San Antonio, the usage of Isaac as a screener has faded but his impact has remained. Opposing players lined up against him are constantly staring down the barrel of a loaded shotgun as he checks into the lineup to wreck plans, pocket-snatch and run off with their belongings. "There's no matchup that I think he hasn't won this year, like I said it's just another day at the office for [Isaac]," said All-Star teammate Paolo Banchero.
Jonathan's past few notable victims; two All-Stars, and a generational prospect out of France have had hell unleashed onto them. Isaac inhales his assignments, his on-ball defense a monument to incarceration.
“Jonathan Isaac is an elite, elite, elite, elite defender,” Magic head coach Jamahl Mosley said. “I think he just knows his timing. He knows he can guard bigs. He can guard smalls. He has great anticipation. His ability to protect the rim, but also sit down and guard guys that are on the perimeter and be able to contest all shots with his length.”
Isaac's a master of disruption and a certified nuisance. The footwork is nuts, and the hands are too. He’s long been a nightmare for opposing teams because he makes himself felt whether he’s involved offensively or not. Even when he makes a mistake by overcommitting on passes, he'll fight his way back into the play for highlight-reel-worthy plays routinely.
“Super impressive,” Franz Wagner said recently of him. “It’s not just what he does on the ball. It’s really the impact on the whole possession. When other guys are getting back-cut or there is a missed coverage or something like that, his ability just to impact shots. He makes a lot of mistakes [from others] not look like mistakes anymore. I think that’s way greater of an impact because it’s every possession, not just what he does on the ball."
The Magic have an 84.6 defensive rating with Jonathan Isaac on, compared to 110.7 with him off in those wins. Orlando is 14-6 when Isaac plays more than 13 minutes -- Over 40 games into the season and Jamahl Mosley hasn't revealed his entire hand. Throwing his secret weapon to close games has frustrated opposing coaches recently, but as they adjust what will he counter with? Leaving the door open remains the ability to start Isaac, this time with a slightly different narrative attached to it.