Jonathan Isaac had to make something clear. The Orlando Magic forward, talking to CBS Sports on the phone on the afternoon of his 20th birthday, did not want to sell himself short. Yes, he just spent a minute talking about being versatile and doing all the little things that help a team win. No, he absolutely did not want to give the impression that he sees himself as only a bit player, with little to offer when the ball comes his way.
"I don't want to make it seem like I have no offensive game and I can't put points up," Isaac said. "That's not what I'm saying -- I don't want that to be out there."
He laughed, then continued: "But I think, when Iook at myself and I look at my strengths, I think that the part of my game that is really going to help me stay on the floor and be on the floor is my defensive impact."
Isaac wants to be a playmaker and a consistent 3-point shooter. He wants to do everything. He has the sort of tools that make Magic fans' imaginations run wild, and it's hard to talk about him without using the word upside. Isaac is mature enough, though, to understand what his team needs from him right now.
It is rare for a player to establish himself as a defensive stopper in his first season, and rarer still for anyone to be the sort of menace Isaac was in 27 games as a 19-year-old rookie, prowling all over the court to contest jumpers and protect the rim. The rest will come with time, Isaac believes, and he is exuberant when discussing where he and his team are going. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
CBS Sports: Late May, you hear Orlando is hiring Steve Clifford. What happens next?
Jonathan Isaac: He asked me to go to dinner. We had a sitdown for a while and, just talking, getting to know each other on a personal level. And then basketball a little later. It went super well and I'm glad that he did it. He did it with a lot of the guys. It helps create that player-coach relationship quickly on a personal level, and then a basketball level after that. I thought it was fantastic. I love coach Clifford already and I'm excited to play for him.
CBS: What do you love about him?
JI: The best part about him in my opinion is his ability to to teach and to know what wins. I think he knows every aspect of the game and has helped us already so early with picking up those things that we've missed as a team. I think it'll show this season.
CBS: Is there an art to that, for a coach to distill the information into something that is clear and concise?
JI: It's one thing to know it. Then to articulate it [so] there's no ifs and buts about it, it's what has to be done for us to win or to be a great team. He does a great job of teaching it but also enforcing it and making us see the value in such small details that will pile up down the road.
CBS: Beyond just the record, how will you measure the team's success this season?
JI: I'd just say our ability to execute, our ability to bounce back from tough times. When we lose three in a row, how will we respond? When guys go down, if that happens, and guys step up -- our ability to stay together and to have winning be the only things on our minds would be a huge step in the right direction. Even if the numbers aren't all there with the wins and losses, if we can stay together, if we can continue to embrace each other and have that real sense of brotherhood and togetherness, I think the wins and losses will turn in our favor down the road.
CBS: Is this something you learned from your first season?
JI: Last year definitely taught us, or me more personally, the importance of staying together. And there are things you can't control. You can't control injuries, you can't control a lot of the things out there on the floor. But what we can control is how we communicate, how we bounce back, our attention to detail, our anticipation, our excitement for the next practice day and our mindset on getting better.
CBS: It's easy to see the defensive potential in you, Aaron Gordon and Mo Bamba. With Steve in charge and the length on the roster, could this be the rare young team that gets stops?
JI: Yeah, absolutely. It all comes down to how good of a defensive team we want to be. And not even just me, Aaron and Mo -- it goes team-wide. How focused and attention-to-detail-oriented will we be? And I think we have the perfect coach to be an exception to that rule if we buy in and we really focus on really, really getting it -- and not just getting it on a surface level, but really, really understanding our defensive schemes and being able to throw different things at teams. Without a question.
CBS: What should people expect from Aaron this season?
JI: Oh, man. From AG, I would say just to see his growth from last year. I thought he had a really, really good season last year. Hopefully he's healthy for the entire season this year and able to give us 82. But just to see his continued growth as a leader, his continued growth as a playmaker on both ends of the floor. I know defense is a big focus for him this season, so to see him take strides defensively to be a lockdown defender, to be a great rebounder and to be somebody who's going to give his all on both ends. And then offensively just to continue to step into that leadership, playmaker role. Being able to give him the ball late in the shot clock and have him go get us a bucket is going to be huge.
CBS: At summer league there was a buzz whenever you and Mo were playing together. Are you as excited about this partnership as everybody else seems to be?
JI: I'm extremely excited about Mo. With his timetable, with his adding size and strength and knowledge, he is going to pan out to be a great big man in this league. I haven't seen such a smart kid. He's picked up so much so fast. I think with any rookie big, you gotta be patient and allow him to make mistakes, allow him to go through his progression of adding size and really understanding an offense and a defense and all the stuff that that entails. But absolutely, excited to play with him. Even in practice, when we're on the same team, we block a lot of shots and alter a lot of shots as well. It's the same kind of deal as summer league for us. I definitely feel the buzz and like the buzz but I also want to be patient with the both of us to grow and understand. But I definitely see the potential of us being a great defensive tandem.
CBS: Is it easy to be patient with yourself?
JI: I wouldn't say it's easy because everybody wants to be great now, be the most talked-about player now and have everything that they want as a player now. But also I think there's a level of being realistic and understanding that there's a lot of things about this game that I don't have yet. Strength is a component. All the different components -- you know, having a new coach in my second year and only playing 27 games last year because of injury. There's so much that I need to learn. There's so much that needs to be done for me to reach where I want to get to. But that's the part that I love about it as well. There's so much room for me to get better, and my mindset is kind of just taking it day by day and allowing myself to make mistakes, allowing myself to have good and bad nights, to learn from every single one of them, and I think that'll keep me well on my way to becoming the great player that I see myself becoming on both ends of the floor.
CBS: If we're not just talking about basic stats, what do you want your season to look like?
JI: I think at the end of the day, everyone looks at the points, everyone looks at the stat that stands out the most, but for myself I think a lot of what I'm able to do early in my career on the floor are things that don't always show up on the stat sheet. Being able to be a garbage guy, a hustle guy, a guy who's gonna play hard on defense, get his hand on balls and deflections. And all those things, I see myself being really good at early in my career. And as I continue to add to my offensive game, allow that to grow with time as well. I'm definitely not grading myself 100 percent on just what I do offensively, but I think me being on the floor helps my team win with my athleticism, with my size, with my ability to guard and defend and do those things that don't always show up on stat sheets.
CBS: There are stories out there saying you don't want to be known as a 7-footer, you're not exactly sure how much you've grown since college. Do you actually not know how tall you are, and is it funny to you that people are so interested in this?
JI: Yeah, it is funny. I think what I had said kind of got turned into me not wanting to be listed as a 7-footer. That's not what I meant at all. I said something about when I'm walking around and someone asks me how tall I am, if I say 7 feet they freak out more than if I had said 6-10. So it's usually a quicker conversation when I just say 6-10. They're like, "Oh, you look like you're 7." I'm like, "Yeah, no, I'm 6-10." They're like, "Oh, OK, cool." So I don't know exactly how tall I am. I do feel like I've grown a couple inches since being drafted. I would say I'm maybe pushing 7 -- 6-11 3/4.