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Deep Dives

Can Jonathan Isaac Get Even Better in 2020-21?

by Mike Gallagher
Updated On: May 5, 2020, 3:12 pm ET

Welcome back to part three of Deep Dives. In case you missed it, Kevin Durant (link here) and John Wall (link here) kicked it off last week, so check those out. You can follow me on Twitter @MikeSGallagher for more stats like the ones in these columns.


Jonathan Isaac was well on his way to a breakout season in 2019-20, but a bone bruise to his left knee on Jan. 1 has kept him on the sidelines since that scary night in Washington. Unlike the previous two injuries discussed in this series, Isaac’s isn’t nearly as worrisome as an Achilles tear like KD and Wall. The Magic did rule him out for at least 8-10 weeks and were applying for a disabled player exception, but they were denied by the league. Side note: We should've known 2020 was gonna be the WOAT when Isaac went down to start the year.

Earlier this month, the Magic had said that Isaac still isn’t running, and he was only able to take set shots. It’s a little odd that he’s still not up to full speed, but of course, what’s the rush? He said last week that he is open to returning for a possible 2020 playoff run, but will need to be 110% and have everyone comfortable with it. This is the first noteworthy knee issue for Isaac in his NBA career and only a hip flexor injury kept him out of action at Florida State.

Prior to the knee injury, the big concerns on Isaac were his ankles, specifically his right one. The first flare up was in November 2017 to cost him 17 straight games due to his right ankle. He played in two games and was back on the sidelines for two more, and Isaac played one more game before he was shut down from Dec. 28, 2017 to March of 2018 for another right ankle sprain. Isaac suffered a left ankle injury in late March to end his season and he also had a left foot sprain earlier in March, limiting him to just 27 games in his rookie campaign. 

Heading into his second season, Isaac’s bad luck on his right ankle continued with a right ankle sprain on Oct. 1 during a preseason game, but he was able to make it back for an Oct. 10 preseason game. Isaac suffered yet another right ankle sprain in November of 2018 to cost him six games. That was almost it for injuries for Isaac in his second season with the exception of a one-game absence for the season finale due to a concussion.

In 2019-20 after being one of the most hyped players of the summer, Isaac looked like he was set to explode, but out of nowhere we got news that he wasn’t going to play on Nov. 15 due to… you guessed it, a right ankle sprain. We would later find out that Isaac hurt himself during a jersey reveal event for those dumb orange monstrosities (I’m biased). After missing two games, Isaac had a clean bill of health with no limits until he had his season-ending knee injury.

Besides the repeated right ankle sprains, there’s not much to worry about here. He didn’t have any structural damage to his left knee, and it’s somewhat positive that he didn’t need to miss much time the last time he sprained his ankle.

Injuries aside, Isaac was one of the best breakout picks in 2019-20 as he flirted with first-round value per game in nine-category leagues prior to his injury. In 32 games, Isaac averaged 12.0 points, 6.9 boards, 1.4 dimes, 1.6 steals, 2.4 blocks and 0.9 treys on a 46/33/77 shooting line. As mentioned, he had a ridiculous amount of hype with him reportedly sitting at 240 pounds during the summer as the #MuscleWatch guy and was getting a ton of praise from coaches and the front office. Although, my favorite Isaac hype quote came from Terrence Ross. "The way JI moves is unreal. He’s like a giraffe moving like a lion. I love the way he moves for his size. I’m excited about him this year," Ross said

Clearly, the biggest part of his fantasy value was his blocks. Not only did he get more playing time, Isaac was a per-minute monster at 3.0 blocks per 36 last season. A huge reason why Isaac upped his blocks was because he was able to swat shots from away from the basket. In 2019-20, he had 26.9% of his blocks from eight-plus feet away, which is way more than the 16.3% in 2018-19. He also led the NBA in blocks from 4-14 feet per game and it wasn’t close (1.09 for Isaac, Anthony Davis second at 0.75). Isaac was still able to keep his blocks at 3.0 per 36, so he was blocking shots and committing fouls at the same rate -- 1.8 blocks and 2.6 fouls per 36 in 2018-19 2.0 blocks and 3.2 fouls per 36 in his rookie season. Huge. He also saw his foul rate on shooting fouls dip last season, and Isaac hasn’t committed many offensive fouls or loose-ball fouls in the last two seasons. Decreasing fouls and increase blocks is exactly what we want to see from our young shot-blocking specialists. 

Isaac’s steals were also increasing in a big way at 1.9 per 36 in 2019-20 from his 1.1 in 2018-19 -- had 2.2 steals per 36 in his 535 minutes as a rookie. On top of that, Isaac’s steals were clearly trending up as the 2019-20 season went on, putting up 1.6, 1.7 and 2.0 steals per 36 from October to December. In his 15 December games, Isaac was racking up the defensive stats at 1.7 steals and 2.3 blocks per game in just 30.6 minutes per game. No player in NBA history was able to hit those numbers in under 35 minutes per game over the course of a season. Even if you take the minutes cap off it, only Hakeem Olajuwon (nine times!), Ben Wallace (twice), David Robinson and Andrei Kirilenko are the only players to hit those marks per game over the course of a season. Digging a bit deeper in 2019-20 steals, 68% of Isaac’s steals were off bad passes, which is way up from the 54.2% in 2018-19. For what it's worth in the smaller sample for his rookie year, he was at 66.7%, so part of the reason his steals fell off in 2018-19 looks to be because he wasn't as aggressive in passing lanes. Over the course of the season, Isaac was arguably the most impactful player in fantasy for defensive stats.

Isaac finally knocking down shots explains why he moved into the round 1-2 neighborhood per game in nine-cat leagues. After shooting just 41.9% from the field in his first two seasons, he upped it to 46.3% in 2019-20. Isaac had been clearly trending up for that category, putting up a ghastly 37.9% as a rookie, 42.4% pre-break in 2018-19, and 43.8% after the break in 2018-19.

It’s also not too hard to figure out why he took such a leap in FG%. In 2019-20, 52.5% of his shots came in the paint compared to just 40.6% in 2018-19. Isaac also really took a leap in getting out and running with 2.4 possessions and 2.7 points scored per game in transition at an effective 62.7 FG% on those in 2019-20 compared to 1.4 possessions and 1.8 points per game in 2018-19 (60.0 FG%). Isaac also shot 35.7% on his jumper in 2019-20 from 33.1 the year before and 25.3% as a rookie. 

He also was able to build his FG% despite being unassisted 34.2% of the time in 2019-20, which is up from 23.7 in 2018-19. He also saw his usage rate jump up to 18.1 from 16.0, and even became a better rebounder at 11.4 from 9.9 on his total rebound rate.

Another interesting aspect to Isaac stepping up on offense is the growth of Markelle Fultz, who took over as the starter on Nov. 2 and saw his minutes trend up from 25.3 per game in November to 28.1 in December. Isaac was vastly better inside the arc next to Fultz, making 53.1% of his twos compared to just 46.4% without Fultz. He shot 66.3% in the restricted area with Fultz compared to just 51.6% without him to account for most of the difference there. Isaac did struggle on treys with Fultz, but it’s hard to put too much stock into it with 62.3% of his treys being wide open in 2019-20, and for what it’s worth he shot 7-of-20 on 3PAs off a Fultz pass. Isaac also had 2X the production in steals per minutes with Fultz compared to without him. Fultz looking at more minutes should be a win for Isaac offensively. For what it’s worth, Isaac also shot the ball much better next to Nikola Vucevic (50.0 FG% with, 42.9% without), he did shoot the ball a little worse next to Aaron Gordon (44.9% with, 47.6% without), and there wasn’t much of a difference with Evan Fournier (46.4% with, 45.9% without).

Excluding his right ankle and his recent bone bruise to his knee, there’s just so much to like about Isaac here, and perhaps more importantly it's pretty clear to see where he stepped up. In fantasy, we have to love things we can explain to help our expectations moving forward, and Isaac checks off so many of the boxes to show he's trending up. He shouldn't make it past the third round in any category-based draft and I currently have him in the top 20 for nine-category leagues.

Mike Gallagher

Mike Gallagher has covered fantasy hoops for eight years and this season is his second with NBC Sports Edge. You can find him on Twitter talking about a player's shots at the rim.