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JONATHAN ISAAC: THE DEFINITION OF A DEFENSIVE UNICORN (PART 2)

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@JonathanCAhoops

Quick Hands

Aside from Isaac’s length, his quick hands may be his best defensive attribute. Take for example when he recorded an 8(!) steal game against the Milwaukee Bucks this season. It’s just another thing that makes Isaac an All-Defensive Team lock for years to come.

In this action we see one of Isaac’s tendencies on the defensive end. Isaac loves to reach in and strip players of the ball, especially when they gather. Here, he perfectly times his swipe and cleanly knocks the ball out of Jeremy Lamb’s hands as he’s gathering.

Again another example of Isaac’s quick and active hands.

He does a good job to stay in front of Giannis which is already tough to do. Notice as Isaac has his left hand up and “coiled” as Giannis picks up his dribble. Isaac is just waiting for Giannis to expose the ball to him and when he does, he pounces and steals the ball.

Here’s another instance where Isaac uses his quick hands to force a turnover on the Greek Freak.

He’s one pass away but his length allows Isaac to dig at opposing players as they drive by and still close out if they pass the ball. Just an old-fashioned dig from Isaac here and he’s able to jar the ball loose.

In this sequence Isaac uses his quick hands as a way to recover quickly.

I think this is really important sign of Isaac’s maturity as a defensive player. He picks his spots and chooses when to contest shots and when to swipe at the ball. Only the elite defenders can make the right decision in a split second and Isaac has shown that he can do this.

Just really exciting things for Magic fans.

This clip is just an insane defensive play from Isaac.

He denies the pass to Kevin Durant beautifully and when he sees the ball exposed in the corner of his eye, he reaches back and strips the ball away while still facing Durant.

Not many people in the NBA can do this and Isaac’s combination of instinct, quick hands and length make him a one of a kind player on defense.

Disrupting Passing Lanes

When Isaac isn’t on ball, he uses his length to be a disrupter in the passing lanes. Let me tell you, Isaac is among the game’s best in picking off lazy passes. 

On this play here, Isaac rotates over onto Serge Ibaka’s drive. Knowing Isaac’s elite rim protection, Ibaka tries to kick it out to the corner as Michael Carter-Williams completely blows his rotation. However, Isaac’s length overwhelms Ibaka and he gets the deflection, saving his team from giving up a wide open corner three. 

Another thing I really like about Isaac’s defense is his defensive awareness.

His head is always on a swivel and he is often telling his teammates where they need to be. On the this defensive play, we see Isaac continually scan both sides of the court while guarding Myles Turner off the ball.

Isaac sees the pass coming from a mile away and like a all-pro cornerback, breaks on the pass the moment its thrown.

Here’s another example of Isaac’s elite anticipation.

Dallas looks to run a Spain pick and roll but Kristaps Porzingis completely misses his screen responsibility. Check out Isaac’s defensive awareness as he stays in the lane just long enough so Luka Doncic doesn’t hit the roll man. Isaac then makes the right read and jumps this passing lane before the pass is even thrown.

Also, look how quickly Isaac is able to cover ground as he gets to Porzingis, whose beyond the 3pt line, in what seems like a blink of an eye.

This play Isaac makes here is incredible.

Mikal Bridges throws this high arcing pass and places it where only his roll man can get to it. However, teams have learned now that when Isaac is the weakside help defender, you just cannot throw these high arcing passes because he will steal them every time. Here Isaac uses his length to deflect the pass and the Magic get possession.

Again when Isaac is the help defender, do not try and throw any aerial type pass in his direction because he will punish you every time. His defensive instincts and anticipation are off the charts and he is just too long for NBA offenses to try these passes anymore.

Help Defense and Defensive Rotations

With how sophisticated NBA offenses have become to exploit a team’s weaknesses, strong defenders not only have to be able keep guys in front of them when they’re on the ball, they also have to read offenses and rotate properly. Naturally, Jonathan Isaac is an excellent off-ball defender and very rarely misses rotations.

It’s one of the reasons he had a defensive rating of 105.2 in the 32 games he played in this season, a mark that would give the Magic the 3rd best defense in the NBA.

While Isaac’s length is apparent when he’s defending on the ball, it becomes even more evident when he’s in help defense. He just covers up so much space on the floor all by himself.

I would honestly not be surprised if the Magic found a way to play a zone where they had Isaac cover one whole side of halfcourt. And knowing Isaac’s defensive IQ and instincts, he would probably excel even if he was left on an island like that.

This sequence really showcases Isaac’s defensive IQ.

I love the initial help defense from Isaac that deters Doncic away. Like most defensive anchors, he points to Evan Fournier and shows him where he should rotate but then Isaac does something I have never seen an NBA player pull off.

Isaac squares up to Doncic with his feet just inches away from the paint. On this rotation Isaac has to guard two people and it looks like he’s out of position playing so close to the drive. For a passer like Doncic, this screams skip pass for an open three. But Isaac’s length and anticipation allows him to just snatch the ball away.

You don’t often see Doncic fooled this badly on a read, but that’s what Isaac’s length can do to even the brightest offensive minds.

Here’s another sequence from the same game. Again want to point out Isaac stunting at Doncic on the drive. When he realizes Doncic isn’t going to drop it off to Maxi Kleber, he shuffles his feet and covers up for Aaron Gordan getting blown by.

On this play, Isaac starts out the possession on the opposite end of the floor. He picks up the cutter in Al-Farouq Aminu and rotates over as Damian Lillard beats DJ Augustin off the bounce.

Check out the split second where Isaac plays the pass to the corner and then explodes vertically to contest Lillard’s attempt at the rim when he realizes the pass isn’t happening. Just incredible defensive effort.

Here’s another one of Isaac’s crisp defensive rotation.

Drops down to cover Ja Morant while Markelle Fultz fights through the screen. Isaac’s length is already such a deterrent for offensive players that they first look to pass when Isaac switches on them. Isaac plays Morant perfectly and rotates back to Jackson Jr. at the last instance and forces another turnover.

One more defensive possession where Isaac really shined. Isaac sees the double team on Devin Booker and immediately recognizes that it’s his responsibility to rotate and cover the roll man. However, rather than blindly run to Frank Kaminsky, Isaac has this split second of hesitation.

My guess was he was waiting to make sure Booker wasn’t going to skip the ball to the corner to his man. Rotates over once the pass is in the air and uses his length to create another turnover. What would have been an easy dump off to Dario Saric on the cut is completely covered up by Isaac’s length and pressure on the ball.

Isaac is so long that he can be a little late on his rotations and still be able to blow up the play.

Gambling

Over the course of these two deep dives, I’ve looked at quite a bit of footage of Isaac’s defensive highlights. However, like all players in the NBA, Isaac is prone to some errors.

Perhaps Isaac’s biggest weakness right now is his willingness to gamble on the defensive end. Make no mistake, with his length, these gambles usually work out for him and if they don’t he can still recover in an instance. However, as Isaac matures as a defensive player, I expect him to start and pick his battles more. 

On this play, Isaac reaches in without moving his feet and as a result gets caught out of position. Like I said earlier, Isaac’s length allows him to almost recover perfectly, but he ends up fouling Jaren Jackson Jr. 

In addition, Isaac can get a bit jumpy when he’s in the paint.

Here although he’s a bit late on the rotation, his length puts him in a favourable position against James Ennis. However, Isaac bails Ennis out by biting on the pump fake and fouling him. Isaac has to understand that when he’s towering over a smaller guy in the paint, 9 times out of 10 they are going to try to get him to jump.

Jonathan Isaac truly is a generational type player on the defensive side of the ball.

I can maybe name one player in the NBA that is as versatile as a defender as him (stay tuned for the next deep dive) and even then I would put my money on Isaac. With his unfortunate knee injury sidelining him for the season, there is no doubt in my mind that Isaac will come back next season as an even more terrifying defensive player, ready to terrorize NBA offense and shut down star players.

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