Hoops star Isaac recovering, hoping to play in NBA restart
By Tim Linafelt
For Jonathan Isaac, the worldwide pain and suffering brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has also come with at least some glimpse of a silver lining.
Isaac, a former Florida State hoops star, suffered a knee injury in January while playing for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. At the time, the injury was thought to be season-ending. But a five-month stoppage, dating back to mid-March, has provided some hope that Isaac could play again this season.
The NBA is set to resume on July 30, the Magic are in position for a guaranteed playoff spot and – perhaps most encouraging – Isaac is participating in contact drills at practice.
“I feel like it’s a movie,” Isaac said in a videoconference with reporters, “being hurt and then having this long pause and quarantine to be able to work on my leg, work on my game and get to where I’m in the bubble now with the team.
“So, I’m glad we had this little break, but, at the same time, sorry for all the effects of the coronavirus.”
The No. 6 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, Isaac seemed to have turned a corner in his third season as a pro. The 6-foot-11 forward was averaging career highs in points (12.0), rebounds (6.9) and minutes (29.7) per game, and his injury was considered a major blow to a Magic team that had designs on improving from last season’s surprising run to the playoffs.
In February, Magic president Jeff Weltman said he expected Isaac to miss the remainder of the season.
And he certainly would have, had things played out as expected.
But the extended hiatus has provided Isaac and the Magic a glimmer of hope. Faint as it is – coach Steve Clifford said Monday that it would be another few weeks before he could determine Isaac’s availability – that’s more than they had in February.
“He’s made great progress,” Clifford said. “He’s a terrific worker, so I couldn’t say enough good things about him. It’ll be difficult to know for a couple more weeks if he’ll be able to play.”
Regardless, Clifford believes that simply having Isaac back among his teammates has given the Magic a boost.
“It’s great just having him around,” Clifford said, “because he’s a great person, a great teammate and he’s a guy who brings a lot of positives to your group – even when he can’t play.”
Isaac’s former coaches and teammates in Tallahassee can attest to that.
One of the most highly-regarded prospects in program history – as well as one of the most physically impressive – Isaac wowed the Seminoles not only with his basketball skills, but also with his positive attitude and friendly disposition.
Whereas another freshman with Isaac’s pedigree might behave like a prima donna, coaches often encouraged Isaac to be more selfish and aggressive on the court.
Safe to say things worked out well for all involved. Isaac averaged 12.0 points and nearly eight rebounds per game while earning ACC All-Freshman honors.
And the Seminoles earned a trip to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
From there, Isaac went on to the NBA and FSU went on to perhaps the best era in its modern hoops history.
In the years that followed, the Seminoles have reached the NCAA Elite Eight and Sweet 16, were seconds away from a Final Four bid in 2018, and in 2020 won their first ever ACC regular season championship.
FSU may have reached greater heights since Isaac’s departure. But there’s little doubt that he and his teammates in 2016-17 laid the foundation for that growth.
“It’s extremely special,” Isaac said of his year at Florida State. “I give all the kudos to our coaching staff, the teammates that I was there with – Dwayne Bacon, (Xavier) Rathan-Mayes, Terance Mann – all those guys. Mfiondu Kabengele. …
“To be able to come in and work with those guys, work with the coaching staff and be able to kind of put Florida State back on the map as a tournament team, and to watch how they have just taken what we did and continued to blow the doors off the program, it feels great.”