It’s easy to see Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac as a lottery ticket with boom-or-bust potential. Most wings who look like him in the NBA draft usually fit that mold.
Isaac is tall (6’11), skinny, and raw offensively. He flashed a respectable three-point stroke in his one season at Florida State, but he’s not exactly a pure shooter. He can put the ball on the floor a little bit, but he certainly needs to improve his handle. He finished with 11 more turnovers than assists as a freshman.
In the draft, there is no bigger gamble than this type of player. For every Giannis Antetokounmpo, there’s a Perry Jones III. After one year, the Lakers still don’t know exactly what they have in Brandon Ingram. The Raptors definitely don’t know what they have in Bruno Caboclo after three years.
Something about Isaac is different, though. This wasn’t some swing-for-the-fences gamble by the Magic to take him at No. 6. Isaac’s offensive skill set is just a minor part of the equation. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Isaac looks NBA-ready in one major facet of the game: defense.
Isaac should be able to defend anyone
Isaac enters the draft looking like a defense-first prospect. What makes him unique is a rare ability to both guard the perimeter and defend the rim.
Isaac is blessed with quick feet and long arms. He can slide with ball handlers and also has the length to swallow up their shot attempts. With a 7’1 wingspan, Isaac is significantly longer than the other two wings who will be drafted in the top 10: Kansas’ Josh Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum.
Just look at Isaac come over from the opposite side to reject Tatum at the rim. That’s a play that would be impressive from a freshman center, let alone a nominal small forward:
Isaac’s 49 blocks this season are right on par with the freshman centers who will be taken in the first round. Creighton’s Justin Patton finished the season with 50 blocks. Texas’ Jarrett Allen had 51 blocks. Getting that kind of supplemental rim protection out of a forward is part of what makes Isaac so intriguing.
His ability to switch screens and check multiple positions is just as striking. Here, Isaac starts by matching up with Seth Allen, a 6’1 guard who was one of the better backcourt scorers in the ACC last season. After a screen, he switches onto another 6’1 guard in Justin Robinson. After another screen, he finds himself on Zach LeDay, a powerful 6’7 big with scoring ability. Isaac bodies him up and denies him at the rim:
In an NBA that is putting an increased emphasis on defensive versatility, Isaac is coming into the league at a great time. Theoretically, he can switch every screen and slide up or down the lineup depending on matchups. That should endear him to his first NBA coach early in his career.
Isaac has offensive potential, too
Isaac will likely spend most of his time at power forward, given the way the NBA has been trending. But he was raised as a wing. That means he’s comfortable on the perimeter with the ball in his hands attacking the defense with either his jump shot or off the dribble.
Isaac’s shooting stroke was impressive as a freshman. He knocked down 34 threes at a 34.8 percent clip and made 78 percent of his free throws. No one is blocking that shot with his size and high release point:
If his shooting range translates to the NBA, Isaac is going to have a long and successful career for the Magic, no matter what else happens with his offensive skill set.
The biggest area of improvement for Isaac will be as a ball-handler and playmaker. He isn’t the type of player you can expect to break guys down off the dribble. That said, he flashed the ability to put the ball on the floor when attacking the basket. This could be a big part of his game:
If Isaac reaches his ceiling on defense, his offense will be gravy. He proved he already has some developing skill on that end in his one season at FSU.
Isaac isn’t going to take a lot of bad shots
Isaac only averaged eight shots per game for Florida State. That was third on the team. You can take that one of two ways: Either he lacks assertiveness on the offensive end, or he refused to force anything with a talented and veteran supporting cast around him.
I tend to fall in the latter category. I saw a player who would play within himself rather than someone who wanted to boost his scoring average to impress NBA scouts. He scored on cuts and catch-and-shoot opportunities but wasn’t trying to take over by going one-on-one. That’s part of the reason he was a more efficient scorer than Tatum, who enters the league with a reputation as being much more skilled on the offensive end.
This should serve Isaac well early in his NBA career. The Magic aren’t going to let him take 20 shots per game as a rookie. He’s going to have to pick his spots, move the ball, and earn his minutes on the defensive end. He already showed an ability to do that at Florida State.
In the end, defense will be Isaac’s calling card in the NBA. What separates him from so many of the other tall, skinny wings who have entered the draft in recent years is that his offensive potential isn’t central to his success. It’s merely part of the equation.
If Isaac’s shot proves to be for real and his handle keeps improving, the sky is the limit. Until then, he projects as a star role player who can take any defensive assignment, switch any screen, and give you a little bit on the offensive end.
In today’s NBA, that’s an extremely valuable player. Well done, Magic.