The “lengthy basketball player with perimeter skills” concept isn’t a new one, but thanks to young stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Jokic who can run an offense from anywhere on the floor, the value of long, multi-position players is at an all-time high. It wouldn’t be surprising to watch an NBA game ten years from now and see both teams playing five position-less players 6’8” or taller across the floor.
But, identifying these players isn’t easy (it still hurts to see Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee), and their development sometimes requires patience. Some are ready to lead a team from day one, but others are like Jonathan Isaac, who comes with an unknown floor but the highest possible ceiling of any player in this year’s draft.
In one season at Florida State, Isaac averaged 12 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks in 26.2 minutes per game with a PER of 25.1.
Spend two possessions watching Jonathan Isaac and you immediately understand why every scout is paying attention. He stands at 6’11” and 205 pounds with a 7’1” wingspan and splits time at both forward positions, where his length and athleticism foreshadow the future of the league. Isaac’s fluid, clean footwork is surprising, given that he’s still adjusting to his length (he grew a full six inches late in high school).
Isaac is at his most impressive on defense, where he can defend most shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. It’s even conceivable that as his game grows, his defensive capabilities could expand. He gets deep into his defensive stance on the perimeter and has solid lateral quickness. In a league that is increasingly switching at all five positions, Isaac is the new defensive prototype. To have a rim protector (he averaged 2.3 blocks per 40 minutes) who can comfortably guard all the way out to the three is huge.
But while his immediate value is defense, it’s his sky-high offensive potential that is so intriguing. Right now, Isaac is a slasher and spot shooter. He has the skills to score in transition and off the ball, shooting a respectable 35 percent from three. His game is efficient and team-oriented; he never tries to over assert himself. He’s shown signs of decent ball handling and a solid jab step to create separation, so Isaac has the potential to add more weapons to his arsenal.
More than anything, though, he works hard on the floor. He finds ways to force turnovers, chase down blocks, and crash the glass at both ends (he grabbed 2.6 offensive boards per 40 minutes). With his 9’1” standing reach, his timing and athleticism, Isaac looks to be a player who can fill the stat sheet on any given night.
Strength and scoring mentality will determine Isaac’s impact at the next level. If he can find a way to add muscle to his frame, he projects to play three positions. But if he stays around 200 pounds, Isaac will have to learn to leverage his body better to maintain his versatility. For every Kevin Durant who’s proved critics of his frame wrong, there’s a Brandon Ingram who’s had a painful adjustment period. Tied into that are questions about Isaac’s rebounding contributions translating to the pros. He has small hands, and without the bulk of other NBA players, Isaac will need to really do work down low.
Ultimately, his on-ball playmaking and assertiveness on offense will have to blossom for Isaac to succeed. Right now, he structures his game as an elite three-and-D specialist, something every NBA executive will pay big money for. But Florida State’s offense rarely funneled through Isaac. Though it may have been due to the team, Isaac can be too passive at times. Some close to the program believe that he could have put up 25 per game, but that he played within the design of the team and never forced his own offense. That shows some wisdom to play within himself, but his future NBA team will likely look to their lottery pick to be an offensive leader. Killer instincts are not easily taught.
Fit with the Mavericks
The versatility Isaac could bring to the Mavericks is undeniable. A future frontcourt of Isaac, Barnes and Noel would be worth the investment. They could switch from the perimeter to the block seamlessly, and their collective length and athleticism could make Dallas a legitimate defensive unit.
Head Wizard Rick Carlisle has straightforward expectations of his young players: play defense, rebound, hustle, and don’t overplay on offense. With Isaac’s sound off-ball game and defensive versatility, it’s easy to envision him working well in Carlisle’s system.
Unfortunately, it’s harder to envision Isaac still being on the board by the ninth pick; more realistically, he’ll go somewhere four through seven. If the Mavericks are sold, they’ll need to move up to get him. And if they are willing to trade up for him, they need to be sure they’re comfortable gambling on Jonathan Isaac’s ceiling and have the patience to watch him grow.