Jonathan Isaac is About to Be Your Favorite Team's Worst Nightmare
In a sit-down Q&A, the Orlando Magic rookie talks about what surprised him most the first time he guarded LeBron James, comparisons to Giannis Antetokounmpo, why NBA defense is easier than he expected, and more.
Photo by Erik Williams - USA TODAY Sports
Lost in one of the most impressive and promising draft classes in recent NBA history is a 6’10” paperclip named Jonathan Isaac. Selected sixth overall by the Orlando Magic last June, Isaac is the type of prospect who enters the league without any boundaries surrounding his talent.
Blessed with several inborn qualities (length, speed, anticipation, etc.) that will shine as soon as his brain catches up to the many calculations needed on every possession, framing Isaac’s exact trajectory is an impossible task. Just know that he'll probably be awesome.
“I believe he’s gonna be one of the better two-way players in the game when he comes into his own,” Magic head coach Frank Vogel said.
Even in a season that's been plagued by injuries to both ankles—Isaac will spend his offseason strengthening lower-leg muscles with a physical therapist—the 20-year-old was finally able to showcase his value in March. Among all players who logged at least 200 minutes in the month, Isaac ranked first in deflections per 36 minutes (5.8) and second in loose balls recovered (2.3). With two hockey sticks poking out of each shoulder, he’s an absolute menace who singlehandedly shrinks passing lanes and is able to switch out on all five positions.
Even when he (understandably) can't stay in front of a much smaller guard, Isaac is quick enough to track the ball and either swat a layup off the glass or swoop in and take the ball away.
In a word, he's special. And next to Aaron Gordon—an impressive Most Improved Player candidate who's somehow only 22 years old—the Magic may finally have two building blocks they can be proud of. The numbers are noisy, but according to CTG, Orlando's defense has been incredible in the 276 minutes Isaac and Gordon have shared the floor.
Offense is another story, and Isaac has yet to show much of what he has to offer on that side of the ball. He's shooting 38 percent from the floor and has 30 more fouls than assists. But any rookie who provides elite impact in any one area deserves attention. And when said rookie looks and moves like Isaac, it's terrifying.
On a rainy Tuesday morning at Madison Square Garden, Isaac sat down with VICE Sports to talk all things pertaining to his first year in the NBA.
VICE Sports: What was your first real "Welcome to the NBA" moment?
Jonathan Isaac: I would say my first welcome to the NBA moment would be when I forgot my jersey. I think it was before my first game. I forgot my jersey, and I was on the bench. I forgot it in the locker room and I didn’t put it on. But besides that I would say guarding LeBron. Honestly, just being next to him and, like, bumping him, feeling him and what not. That was...while I was playing I was like ‘damn I’m checking LeBron. If I get a steal or something I’ll be hype.’”
Was LeBron bigger, faster, stronger than you anticipated, just from watching him on TV?
I would say faster than I anticipated. On one play he got the rebound and he kind of was coming at me full speed. Just to see his size, power, and speed all in one, I was just like [Isaac’s eyes widen and he laughs], you know what I’m saying? I had to foul.
Besides LeBron who’s been the toughest cover?
I’d say Giannis. I had a real tough time guarding Giannis. Same thing with him, honestly. His strength, plus his length and just being able to move quick, it was trouble for me.
My exact next question before you said that was going to be ‘What was guarding Giannis like?’”
With Giannis I was definitely excited to get out there and compete. I’m pretty sure we won that game, but it was just a good game overall. He’s just a tough cover and he’s been like that for the entire league, so I wasn’t expecting to shut him down. Just wanted to try my best, play hard, and hold my own. It was tough though.
What do you learn walking away from an experience like that?
I’d say just what to expect in the future. Kind of gauge myself now and what I will be in a couple years and see what it’s like then. I would say it just puts everything in perspective to me of where I feel like I’m gonna go and where I’m gonna get to.
Is Giannis someone you want to model your game after?
I would say not necessarily. I think I’ll probably shoot the ball a lot more than he does now, but definitely his ability to go in the post, handle the ball, bring it up, play point guard, is something that I see myself doing.
Is NBA defense easier than you expected?
It honestly really is.
Watching you play, your anticipation isn’t normal in a typical rookie.
I was telling somebody the other day, my homeboy, I’ve always been able to play defense just because of my size, and as I’ve grown I’ve still been able to keep my quickness and things like that. So I didn’t think playing defense would be that hard, but it’s actually what I like doing. And I’ve found a lot of success in it early.
But why is it so easy for you?
I don’t know! Like you said, anticipation, being able to move my feet and stay in front of guys, using my length to block shots and get into passing lanes.
Are you watching a ton of film?
Honestly no. Honestly not a ton of film on what to do defensively. I’ll watch our film and my minutes and things like that. I was talking to one of our coaches, I was watching my game film and I had five steals or something like that, and I told him my defense was awful, in terms of knowing where to be. And as I grow in the league and have more time, I feel like I’ll be able to take my defense to another level when it comes to knowing what’s gonna happen, knowing what this action looks like, and things like that, instead of just going off of raw instinct. I was looking at myself like "yo I’m in the wrong position like 90 percent of the time," but I kind of make up for it. Once I’m able to understand "this is where I need to be" and then use my quickness and ability and length and things like that, I think I’ll be a nightmare.
Is Defensive Player of the Year or regularly making an All-Defensive team a goal of yours?
Honestly it’s never been, but seeing my success defensively so far, why not?
Offensively, is that end harder than you expected it to be?
No, because I know myself and I knew even coming through my college career that it would take time. It would take time for me to relax and settle down and get comfortable offensively, and that’s been seen through my first year, even though I’ve been out a lot. I know myself and I knew it would take some time, so I’m not really discouraged about it or in my head about it. I know the offensive player I can be and know that there’s a lot of things I haven’t shown, so I’m not frustrated.
How’d you spend your All-Star break?
I went back to Florida State. Me and [Charlotte Hornets rookie Dwayne] Bacon went back to Florida State and they honored us at halftime and it was just really great. I just got shots up with Coach Gates, an assistant coach, watched the team practice. Me and Bacon got some shots up.
What’s your primary focus heading into the offseason?
It's gonna be ball handling, being able to be a knockdown shooter. Catch-and-shoot corner threes. And one of the front office guys really wants me to be able to get up and down the floor, so being able to run every possession.
I read that a few veterans have been in your ear offering advice for you this summer. What specifically have they been telling you?
My body. My body is gonna be huge throughout my entire career. Staying healthy. Working on joints and things like that. Just getting stronger, being able to hold my own more is gonna be important.
Do you expect to be a pick-and-roll big at any point in your career?
Where I'm the ball-handler or…?
Well both. Screening and handling it.
I would say both. I would say being able to handle the ball in the pick-and-roll. Being able to set the pick and pop and things like that.
What position do you ultimately see yourself playing?
Honestly, I don’t know. I like the three and the four but at the same time, the way the league is going and trying to be positionless, I don’t think it matters.
How hard has it been health-wise, sitting out during a year when so many other rookies from your class are having fantastic seasons, guys like Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell [Evan Fournier air balls a corner three right in front of us. Isaac laughs and yells "down and back."]
It’s been tough. I’m not really one to look around and say "aw man this guys playing well" I’m happy for all of them and what they’re doing. Jayson, Donovan, Kyle, all those guys. But pertaining to myself it has been difficult. Nobody wants to sit out, especially their rookie year. Nobody wants to be in and out of the rotation, having to watch from the bench. It’s been tough, but I think I’ve been taking it well. I’ve stayed joyful, I’ve stayed engaged, and stayed around these guys. It’s been good.
You and Aaron Gordon are the two most important building blocks for this organization right now, and you’ve recently spent a bunch of time on the court together. How do you guys feed off one another?
It’s been great. I think me and him complement each other defensively and offensively. Defensively being able to switch. The other night in Atlanta it was me and him and I started on Tayshaun Prince and he was on…
[Isaac snaps his fingers and smiles.] Yeah, my bad. Taurean Prince. And he started on, who was it? I’m so bad at names.
Collins! And whenever John came up to set a screen we were able to switch and I think we held Taurean, their best player, to zero points up until the fourth quarter. [Writer’s Note: Prince’s first two points came on a 14-foot jump shot with 10:03 left in the fourth quarter.] And John Collins, we did a good job on him as well. Usually a pick-and-roll creates some type of advantage for the offensive team, but it doesn’t when it’s me and him in the pick-and-roll, so we’re definitely good and complement each other really well.
We’re both able to block shots, get up and rebound. Get up and push. Offensively, creating that yin and yang thing where if he’s on the perimeter I’m on the low block or something like that, or in the corner, and then we switch and just being able to move around, I think it’s gonna be something great for the future and I’m looking forward to it.