Since the Dwight Howard glory years ceased, there hasn’t been a lot to write home about when it comes to the Orlando Magic franchise. Before enduring a gentleman’s sweep at the hands of the champion Toronto Raptors last season, they hadn’t sniffed the sweet aromas of the postseason since Howard left after the 2011-12 season. Even after qualifying for the playoffs last season, they haven’t been able to shake the mediocrity tag that has haunted them for nigh on a decade. A plethora of mishaps have crushed fans’ spirits in that time, be it failed draft picks, underwhelming front office decisions or coaching appointments that backfired at every turn.
Unfortunately, not much has changed this season. With 12 wins and 15 losses in the bland bottom half of the Eastern Conference, the Magic are not necessarily a bad team. But, as they’re currently constructed, they don’t have much hope to be anything more than that. Coming off his maiden All-Star appearance in 2018-19, Nikola Vucevic is still a valuable piece, but he isn’t enough to push a team out of ordinariness. Aaron Gordon is an excitement machine capable of huge nights, but he still struggles to maintain consistency. And Markelle Fultz has experienced a mini-resurgence of late. While those names are intriguing, none of them jump off the page.
However, Jonathan Isaac and his nightly defensive exploits are the biggest reason to tune in to Magic basketball.
So far, the third-year guard is swiping 1.2 steals a night and swatting a league-leading 2.7 shots per game. According to Basketball Reference, he ranks equal-first in block percentage, fifth overall in defensive box plus/minus, 13th in defensive win shares and 20th in defensive rating. He also ranks 17h in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus and 10th in Bball Index’s defensive player impact plus/minus.
Simply put, he is dominating and continues to be the main reason Orlando rank 12th in defensive rating despite possessing a number of porous defenders logging big minutes.
Not since Dennis Rodman back in 1993 has a player taken home Defensive Player of the Year honors without gracing the playoffs, but the 22-year-old Isaac legitimately has a shot to end that drought. That’s the kind of impact he makes on the defensive end of the floor night-in, night-out.
When quizzed about his clamping start to the season by the Orlando Sentinel’s Roy Parry, Isaac didn’t mince words about his aspirations.
“It’s something I want for myself when it comes to the personal accolades and what I want for my career,” he said. “I want to be a multiple-time defensive player of the year and make the defensive team. But it’s just taking it game-by-game and continue to try to get better in where I’m not proficient when it comes to defense and just keep on.”
His defensive expertise is aided by his enormous 6-foot-11 frame, his nine-foot standing reach, and his seven-foot-1 wingspan. He blends that size with a legitimate ability to pick up guards, wings, and bigs, comfortably cementing himself as one of the most versatile and multifaceted defenders on the planet.
Plenty of players have entered the NBA testing off the charts anthropologically, not all of them have gone on to wield their weapons with the same sort of gusto Isaac is. It takes a certain instinct, feel for the game and skill set to truly make the most of your physical gifts.
The chief defensive skill of Jonathan Isaac is his ability to come from any position to block or contest a shot. His long arms help him make up space, but it’s his innate ability to time up shots and be positionally sound. The following plays perfectly encapsulate why he is the league-leader in blocks per game and one of the most fearsome defenders around. To begin, he zones off his man (Larry Nance Jr.) and stuffs Cedi Osman’s driving layup attempt, hangs around to provide help in the paint, then sprints out to Nance and forces him to put the ball on the floor.
His help defense mastery isn’t limited to weak-side shot-blocking. The speed in which he gallops off Jabari Parker in the corner to intercept Bruno Fernando’s post feed is staggering.
His defensive aptitude isn’t just limited to help defense like some of the top swatters around the league, though. Despite his slender frame, he holds his own in individual defensive challenges. In this example, he provides a wall against reigning Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam and, even after getting caught off-kilter for a moment, denies his close-range shot.
Here, he switches onto the blisteringly quick Ja Morant and spikes his shot into another dimension.
And here, he holds his own in a physical battle then forces a miss out of the bully-ball regular Julius Randle. Just to put the cherry on top, he annihilates Mitchell Robinson’s putback attempt.
When it comes to the defensive work that doesn’t show up in the box score or on the highlight reels, he has that covered as well.
Marvel at how he forbids the Cleveland Cavalier ball-handlers to make the entry pass to Kevin Love from every angle the former All-Star tries to work into. He fronts him vigorously and then spins and contests hard against one of the best rebounders in the league. This forces Cedi Osman to take a deep triple that clangs off the rim. Job done.
With this sort of eye-popping defense, Jonathan Isaac has quickly become a fan favorite in Orlando. Even as his ever-growing offensive game still lags behind, he is doing enough on the other end of the floor to contribute to wins and to make his team viewing material to every basketball enthusiast.
At just 22-years-old, the former Florida State standout is single-handedly tearing his team out of the doldrums of unwatchable mediocrity. Just imagine what he will be doing when his body and skill set hit their prime.