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Know The Prospect: Jonathan Isaac

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Much length!

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

I once had a job that involved 100-plus ten-year-olds in a giant field at the bottom of a hill playing tag. It was an environmental residential camp; for the game we’d split the kids into hawks, snakes, frogs and flies. Flies had to run away from everybody; frogs could catch flies but had to run from snakes and hawks; snakes fled hawks. Hawks were the apex predator.

To start the game there was only one hawk, and naturally all the kids always wanted to be the hawk, swooping down that hill with all the undignified majesty of a preteen on a power trip. Whoever they caught joined them as hawks in the next round. After a few rounds, everyone’s a hawk. It’s trippy seeing a field full of fifth graders ponder the irrevocability of natural selection.

Twenty years ago, Kevin Garnett was an NBA sea change, a shock of athleticism amidst a league-wide lumbering low-post muscularity. Ever since, every time a team replaced a Chris Dudley with a Marcus Camby, a Zydrunas Ilgauskas with a Draymond Green, the outliers normalized; bigs who could protect the rim, guard guards, shoot from outside and create off the dribble slowly became the new normal. Roy Hibbert won the battle (not just in 2013), but Tyson Chandler is winning the war. The sleek have inherited the earth. In a few weeks, a shot-blocking ball-handling perimeter-fluent nearly-seven-foot Bronx-born teen who can pick up his dribble behind the three-point line and lay it in at the rim could be a New York Knick.

Jonathan Isaac is 6’11” and a shade over 200 pounds, the result of a late growth spurt in high school. He’s essentially a wing in the body of a center, a luckier lot in life than being a big in the body of a wing. His height, length (7’1” wingspan) and foot speed make him an omnivorous defender, able to streak from the weak side arc to the rim to block a shot, switch pick-and-rolls, or strip a guard and ignite a fast break.

He’s equally comfortable turning his own turnovers into highlights.

His lone year at Florida State he averaged four stocks (steals/blocks) per 40 minutes. Apples to oranges, maybe, but the only Knick with those numbers per 36 was Kyle O’Quinn.

Despite his slender frame, Isaac was fifth among Draft Express’s top 37 forwards in rebounding percentage. His hybrid skillset means seamless transition from a defensive rebound to bringing the ball up court to assisting on the other end.

Below, he defends three different players on a single possession. The first, Seth Allen, a senior guard, looks physically overmatched, like a kid at a basketball camp going up against his hero. Justin Robinson quickly calls a pick-and-roll to get Isaac defending a post-up from Zach LeDay, who’s 30 pounds heavier. Isaac shifts into interior-D mode and stuffs him.

“Those dudes aren’t NBA talent!” you may say, and maybe you’re right. Check out Isaac helping off, closing out, and ultimately stealing the ball from fellow lottery lock Jayson Tatum.

Isaac had his moments against Tatum, a dark horse top-three draft hopeful.

Isaac’s productivity was more highly concentrated than most: Florida State had 11 players average 10+ minutes per game; none averaged 30. His playing time was well below most of this year’s lottery candidates’ minutes:

Despite the limited look, there were encouraging signs, and not just as a defensive force. 78% of Isaac’s shots came at the rim or behind the arc, an encouraging ratio which suggests potential efficiency. Nearly two months into the season, the only lottery hopefuls shooting better from three than him were Fultz, Ball and Markkanen. Isaac is streaky from outside, so a deplorable December (21%) and March (17%) brought his final percentage down to 35%, but that’s right in Dennis Smith Jr./Tatum territory. He hit 16 of 36 (44%) on mid-range jumpers, a decent mark, and according to Draft Express made 10 of 16 shots attacking closeouts, sometimes flashing a baseline turnaround jumper which reminds anyone who watched the Knicks in the 1990s of someone.

Isaac averaged 1.3 points per possession at the rim and an even more impressive 1.4 PPP on off-ball cuts. Watch him run from baseline to baseline, waiting for the perfect moment to cut for an alley-oop.

Another high-percentage bucket off attacking a corner closeout.

He’s not only a corner threat cutting and dunking. Defenders have to respect his ability to hit spot-up threes or even pull-up jumpers. Stretch fours are fossils. Playmaking fours = where it’s at.

Isaac’s game has its share of weaknesses, many the type you’d expect from a one-and-done who played relatively few minutes (Draft Express also listed “has asthma” as one of his weaknesses, to which my Albuterol inhaler and I offer a cheery middle finger). His frame is slight, meaning on offense he gets bumped off his spot and on defense guards can power through him when they challenge him. His jump shot is inconsistent. While not as extreme a case as Lonzo Ball, Isaac is far more comfortable shooting while moving to his left than his right, and defenses will know that. A number of scouts point out Isaac bobbles an inordinate number of passes because his hands are small. Small hands won’t stop a guy from becoming the worst president ever, but they’re a potential impediment for an NBA hopeful.

Isaac has a good handle for a center, but not for someone regularly entrusted with initiating an offense: pick-and-rolls led by him generally ended in pull-ups, or 25% of the time in passes. He missed all seven shots he took out of isolations, the sign of someone who doesn’t have the ball control to attack with confidence. To his credit, that low number of attempts indicates a player smart enough to not try to do what he knows he can’t. Among Draft Express’s top 37 forwards, Isaac ranked 29th in assist to turnover ratio. Again, youth plus inexperience does not bind one’s future to their past. Isaac has shown signs of good vision, and he’s a willing passer.

A multi-talented skilled pseudo-seven-footer by definition creates mismatches and options that wouldn’t otherwise exist. At the turn of the century, when the Knicks met the Pacers in the playoffs, Indiana would stick Mark Jackson on Marcus Camby, confident the Knicks could do nothing to exploit the nine-inch height disparity. You can’t do that with Isaac.

You also can’t get away with not being impressed by him when he speaks.

I like him.

I really really like him.

There are a few intriguing career paths Isaac could take. While he isn’t strong enough to play center for 82 games, smart teams wouldn’t ask him to, but smart teams would wait for the playoffs to turn him loose as a small-ball big. Draymond Green plays center only 10-21% of the time during the regular season; that number jumps up to 27-31% in the postseason. The Knicks used Porzingis at center 30% of the time his rookie year but cut it to 21% last year. KP is a better shooter than Isaac; Isaac is a better ball-handler. Depending on match-ups, New York could alternate playing one in the pivot versus the other. Or have fun forcing teams to deal with both. The Knicks dictating the terms of engagement. Imagine that.

Isaac also checks so many boxes on both sides of the game, and is likely to play better the less of a pounding he takes, that he could be a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Historically sixth men have been explosive scorers, guys like Vinnie Johnson, John Starks, Jamal Crawford, etc. But think of Andre Iguodala in Golden State changing the energy of a game as a two-way player, disrupting on defense, getting out in transition, providing flurries of playmaking in half court sets. Isaac is five inches taller than Iguodala and put up better numbers across the board as a freshman than Iggy did as a sophomore. Past results are never a guarantee of future success, of course. But if Isaac can approach Iggy’s diverse impact on the court and avoid any allegedly offensive lesbian comments off it, the kid will be all right.

Would the Knicks draft another big man when they’re guard-starved and already have KP and Willy Hernangomez?

I think they should strongly consider it if he’s available. I know everybody has Josh Jackson going to Phoenix at #4, but I could see the Suns surprising everyone by taking Isaac. The NBA is forever an evolution that marries skill to size; the only thing better than today’s superstars are tomorrow’s, because they can do it all and be bigger, too. Isaac could become a center-sized do-it-all super role player, a Scottie Pippen to KP’s MJ, a Lamar Odom to Willy’s Pau Gasol. Is it wrong to long for what we don’t have?

The Knicks are still bad enough to draft the best available talent and figure things out afterward. A team with three bigs of such ranging skills would eventually attract free agent guards. Isaac would give the Knicks a second two-way player going forward. Most title contenders contain multiple two-way players: Golden State has Green, Iguodala, and Klay Thompson while for Cleveland, LeBron James and Tristan Thompson devastate in different ways on both ends; before that, there was Miami’s Big Three and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Danny Green. Isaac may not be the Knicks’ obvious fit in 2018, but down the road he may be the new Bill Bradley — the piece that let all the others fall perfectly into place.