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JONATHAN ISAAC: THE DEFINITION OF A DEFENSIVE UNICORN (PART 1)

@JonathanCAhoops

When discussing the elite defensive players in the NBA, a couple of names come to mind often. Guys like Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green are routinely brought up for the best defender in the NBA mantle. However, there is one new guy that is putting himself in the conversation.

That player is Jonathan Isaac.

Advanced Numbers 

NOTE: All these advanced numbers came before Isaac’s knee injury on Jan 1st, 2020.

The advanced numbers all show that Isaac is an elite defensive talent in the NBA today. He consistently ranks among the best in the league in advanced defensive stats and it’s honestly a shame that Isaac isn’t getting the recognition he deserves.

In terms of FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR stat, Isaac is at a +3.3 in terms of Def Box Score RAPTOR and a + 2.3 in terms of Def On/Off RAPTOR. Isaac is also at a + 3.3 in Overall Def RAPTOR.  

In terms of defensive PIPM, Isaac ranks 12th in the league at a + 2.35, which is higher than defensive stalwarts like Marc Gasol (a former DPOY) and Bam Adebayo.

Isaac’s 1.4 DWS puts him 15th in the league and he ranks fifth in DPM with a whopping +4.7. He also ranks 15th in terms of defensive rating with a solid 101.2 while also being second in the league in block % at 8.0%. The rangy forward also managed to increase his DRB % this year to a career high 19.4%.

Another interesting thing is to look at Isaac’s “kill” numbers. A “kill” refers to when a player blocks a shot and recovers the defensive rebound. Isaac is currently leading the league with 42 (!) “kills” on the season. 

Needless to say, the advanced numbers indicate Isaac is a high impact defensive player and among the game’s elite defenders.

Let’s look at how he does it:

Rim Protection

This is one of the many aspects of defence that Isaac excels at.

His length, height and athleticism overwhelm players on offence consistently and its one of the reasons why opposing players are shooting 49.6% within 6ft of the rim when guarded by Isaac (note that players are shooting 50% against reining DPOY Rudy Gobert within 6ft of the rim).

In this first clip we see Isaac’s rim protection on full display.

He rotates on time and stops OG Anunoby’s dribble penetration with his first vertical leap. Watch how quick Isaac’s second jump is as he is able to immediately react and use his length to stuff OG underneath the rim.

Again Isaac uses his agility and quickness to meet Khris Middleton on his drive. Then he uses that insane length to reach over the All-Star’s body and get the rejection.

On this play we see Isaac’s defensive awareness on display.

Notice how he has the presence of mind to slide behind his own teammate, avoiding a collision, and still be able to get up and block Serge Ibaka’s shot attempt. An effortless maneuver from Isaac and another huge rejection at the rim.

This time on the fastbreak, Isaac is shorthanded but he beautifully stunts at Bryce Brown and gets him to get rid of the ball. Once again we see his initial contest on the Blake Griffin pump fake.

Notice how Isaac maintains his verticality to avoid getting called for a foul. On most NBA players, this is an easy bucket for Griffin. However, Isaac utilizes that quick second jump and just erases this shot attempt from Griffin.

Even when Isaac is not getting the block, he’s altering shots at the rim.

On this play, Jaren Jackson Jr. beats him off the dribble and it looks like he’ll be getting a layup. However, Isaac uses his long strides to close the gap between him and Jackson Jr., leading to an excellent challenge at the rim.

I can’t stress how impressive this play is. Jackson Jr. is an extremely lanky player himself (he has a 7’5” wingspan!) and for Isaac to be able to contest the shot so well from practically behind Jackson Jr. is just mind boggling.

More of Isaac’s elite second jump. Just embarasses John Collins at the rim twice here.

Once again, Isaac does much more at the rim than just block shots. In this clip he actually times his first contest perfectly. Keeps his hands straight up in the air and stands his ground until his teammate gets the swat.

For a shot blocker as talented as Isaac, it’s great to see him not hunt for blocks and actually play fundamentally sound defence

I think this highlight reel snatch block really shows us two parts of Isaac’s game that makes him such a great rim protector.

Obviously the length to meet Joel Embiid straight up at the rim is impressive. However, an underrated aspect is Jonathan Isaac’s strength. Embiid is one of the most powerful dunkers in the game today and Isaac is able to completely smother the dunk attempt with one arm and land on the floor with balance.

This last play here really shows off Isaac defensive IQ. I love how he immediately rotates over to help his man when he recognizes the mismatch and gets this huge rejection.

Perimeter Defense

Just as Isaac is an elite rim protector, he is also an excellent perimeter defender.

With how perimeter-oriented the game is today, having bigs that can switch onto smaller guards is so vital. For Isaac, he really moves like a wing and playing defence on the perimeter is no problem for him.

I mean just watch his lateral movement on this sequence. He’s able to turn his hips with smoothness and is able to stay in front of James Johnson counter after counter. I love how he’s able to turn and pivot his body so quickly and it leads to another rejection for Isaac. 

Here’s another great defensive sequence from Isaac.

Giannis Antetokounmpo comes at Isaac at full speed in semi transition. More often than not this ends in a slam for the reining MVP. Watch as Isaac is able to stay in front of Giannis through this whole play and uses his length to force a miss.

Just not something you see everyday with the Greek Freak attacking downhill.

Another great example of Isaac’s quickness and agility.

Here he moves his feet and stays in front of Griffin on the crossover and draws the charge. Isaac is one of the few human beings on Earth that can move like that at his height.

With so many ball screens along the perimeter nowadays, it’s important for defensive players to be able to navigate around these screens. Isaac has no problem with this despite his large frame.

Watch as he first goes under the Kyle Lowry screen and then watch as he lunges forward to maneuver around the Gasol screen. Check out the recovery on the Siakam drive and he forces Siakam into a tough runner.

In addition, whenever a big switches onto a guard on the perimeter we often see guards try and isolate on them.

With the Magic defensive scheme, Isaac plays as more of a big and when he gets switched onto smaller players, he uses his combination of agility, quickness and length to smother them. I mean check out the footwork on this play from Isaac. Stays with Danuel House the whole time and forces an errant dunk attempt.

Sometimes opposing players can forget about trying to shoot out of a ball screen action. Here, Paul George thinks he has daylight and is stuffed on the perimeter.

Once again excellent screen maneuvering from Isaac.

Even when he does get beat initially on the perimeter, Isaac’s pursuit game is among the best in the NBA. He uses his long strides to catch up to Kevin Knox and then uses his length to block the shot attempt.

What I’ve noticed is Isaac is extremely aggressive on the perimeter.

He’s always reaching and trying to poke the ball away. For most guys this would be a problem but Isaac’s length allows him to gamble more on the perimeter and still be able to recover. He reminds me of a matador when playing defence on the perimeter.

He’ll reach and gamble and allow opposing players to get a step on him. However, in reality he’s in total control the whole time and he uses his length to recover and then overwhelm players, just like a matador pulls away the red flag right as the bull’s certain he’s got a hit.

Post Defense

With the Magic employing Isaac more as a big, he spends a lot of time guarding opposing players in the post and just like his rim protection and perimeter defense, Isaac’s length is just too much to overcome.

In this play, the Raptors clear out for Siakam and Isaac is left defending the All-Star in the post all by himself. Watch at how wide he gets.

I mean it is just jaw-dropping how lanky Isaac is. This wide base doesn’t allow post players to get a step beneath Isaac and clear him out of the way. Also, check out the quick hands to strip Siakam for the steal. 

Again check out the absurdly wide base on this post up. Although Isaac may have got away with a foul on the shot contest here, Jaren Jackson Jr. has nowhere to go and throws up a shot as the shot clock ticks down.

Here’s another clip showing how wide Isaac gets. Despite not being the strongest player on the court, this wide base makes it really difficult for players to muscle their way past Issac in the post. Also check out how Siakam’s usually lethal spin move is ineffective as he cannot get his leg around Isaac’s wide base.

That being said, Isaac isn’t immune to mistakes down low. Here he gets caught out of position and Siakam is able to use a drop-step spin move combo to get an easy layup.

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