Jonathan Isaac is the best prospect no one is talking about in this year’s freshman class. While most of his peers went to traditional basketball powerhouses like Duke, Kentucky, and UCLA, Isaac chose Florida State, which hasn’t made an NCAA tournament in four seasons. Isaac hasn’t gotten the chance to show what he can do against elite competition, either; FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton scheduled a soft slate of nonconference games in an effort to build his young team’s confidence and create momentum heading into the ACC schedule. The Seminoles have gotten off to a 10–1 start, but they have played only one ranked team, no. 21 Florida, and they won’t really be tested until they face teams like Duke, UNC, and Louisville in ACC play next month.
Most one-and-done players who opt to play at an under-the-radar school are usually given the chance to dominate the ball and rack up huge statistics immediately, à la Ben Simmons at LSU last season or Markelle Fultz at Washington this year. Isaac, on the other hand, is a cog on a talented team that already has a lot of weapons. Florida State is one of the deepest teams in the country, with 13 players averaging at least 10 minutes a game. The Seminoles also have a lot of returning starpower, led by sophomore Dwayne Bacon, an athletic and powerfully built 6-foot-7 wing who could play his way into the first round of the draft, and junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a fringe NBA prospect who put himself on the map by scoring 30 points in four and a half minutes against Miami as a freshman.
Put it all together and you have the perfect recipe for an elite player to slip through the cracks. Isaac has escaped national attention through the first month of the season by staying hidden in almost every way. In comparison to the other freshmen projected to go in this year’s lottery by DraftExpress, he has a smaller role in the offense, with less of an opportunity to play with the ball in his hands:
Florida State just hasn’t needed Isaac to take over games the way other teams have had to depend on their super-freshmen. FSU went 3–0 when Isaac was out with a hip flexor injury in the first week of December, and he played only 19 minutes in the team’s 83–78 win over Florida on Sunday, his first game back from the injury. But while he hasn’t had to be a star, Isaac has been a very good player for the Seminoles, averaging 14.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and 1 block a game on 56.9 percent shooting. He has been very efficient in a smaller role in the offense, and he has found other ways to contribute to the team besides scoring. That versatility, along with his unique physical gifts, is what makes him such an intriguing prospect.
At 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds, Isaac is a supersize wing who plays primarily as a small-ball PF, and he spaces the floor out to the 3-point line.
Every NBA team needs players who can provide 3-point shooting and defense at multiple positions, and Isaac has the best combination of those skills of any of the 10 freshmen currently projected to go in the lottery by DraftExpress. Only three shoot the 3 more accurately than Isaac, but whether due to a lack of speed (Lauri Markkanen) or size (Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz), none offer the same kind of defensive flexibility:
Isaac is shooting 43.3 percent from 3 on 3.8 attempts a game, and he is shooting 76.9 percent from the free throw line on 3.3 attempts a game, a combination of accuracy and volume in a limited amount of time that indicates his shooting stroke is sustainable. With Isaac opening up the floor for Bacon and Rathan-Mayes to run pick-and-rolls with their big men, FSU can look like an NBA offense:
He has deep range on his jumper, and he can use the jab to create space and shoot over the top of his defenders:
Isaac would be valuable at the next level just based on height and shooting ability. Giving him an elite combination of length and quickness is almost unfair. FSU uses him as the first wave in their pressure defense, where he pressures the inbounder as part of a full-court man-to-man press:
Florida State is one of the biggest teams in the country. Its starting five — Rathan-Mayes (6-foot-4), Terance Mann (6-foot-6), Bacon (6-foot-7), Isaac (6-foot-10), and Michael Ojo (7-foot-1) — all have elite size for their positions. With Isaac at PF, they have four interchangeable players around their center, allowing them to switch screens with impunity on the perimeter. Isaac has the type of defensive versatility NBA teams are looking for, as it’s difficult for a smaller player to get a shot off over an engaged defender with his physical tools:
Even when a player beats Isaac off the dribble and creates a driving lane to the basket, he still has to worry about being blocked from behind:
One of the downsides of not playing a traditional big man at PF is leaving the defense with only one rim protector on the floor. If the offense can force the center out on the perimeter, it creates an opening in the paint. That’s not an issue for Florida State because Isaac can play way above the rim. His wingspan (7-foot-1) isn’t exceptional for a player with his size, but he has great timing and he knows how to use his leaping ability to force tough shots:
Isaac’s size means Florida State doesn’t lose much on the boards despite playing a wing at the 4. When he gets the rebound, he can push the ball up the court and start the break himself. What distinguishes him from other 3-and-D players is the poise with which he plays. He has a great feel for the game, and he rarely speeds himself up. There’s nothing too flashy about the way he plays; he reads the court well and makes the plays that are in front of him:
Isaac can be frustrating to watch at times because he is so unselfish. He doesn’t force the issue, and he moves the ball rather than looks for his own shot. When he’s playing with willing shooters like Bacon and Rathan-Mayes, that can mean a lot of possessions where he’s essentially invisible on offense. Every once in awhile, though, he will flash a move that makes you wonder what he could do in a bigger role. Here he is, patiently creating his own shot:
And here he is with a gorgeous floater from the free throw line:
Those types of plays don’t come that often, though, and there’s a lot of guesswork involved in projecting him going forward. Most of his scoring opportunities come from within the flow of the offense. According to the numbers at Synergy Sports, Isaac is used almost exclusively as a role player, spotting up off the ball, crashing the offensive boards, and getting out in transition. He hasn’t posted up once all season, and he rarely gets the chance to be used in the pick-and-roll:
When he does get to create offense for others, he shows flashes of rare vision and passing ability for a guy his size. It’s almost impossible to stop an explosive 6-foot-10 athlete who can shoot and pass over the top of a defense:
It will be interesting to see if he becomes more aggressive on offense as he acclimates to the college schedule, especially once Florida State’s slate of games increases in difficulty in ACC play. The potential is there. In this sequence against Temple, Isaac uses a Eurostep to split a pick-and-roll and draw a foul:
What we’re seeing is still mostly potential at this point. Isaac is more a collection of interesting skills than a complete basketball player. While he usually makes the right decisions when he is on the floor, he doesn’t always execute them correctly. He can get loose with the ball in traffic, and creating shots against smaller and faster defenders who can get into his dribble might be difficult for him if he’s forced to play more as a wing SF at the next level.
That’s where it would be nice for him to be able to put players on his back in the post, but he lacks the strength to do that comfortably. Lack of bulk is a common thread for many of his struggles, and he can be pushed around at times by older college players, much less the grown men he will see in the NBA:
Isaac is a lot like Brandon Ingram, the no. 2 pick in last year’s draft. Neither player possesses the ideal frame to support a ton of extra weight, which means adding core strength will be extremely important for them to reach their potential in the NBA. Guys like Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr., and Miles Bridges have mature bodies that will allow them to physically compete at the next level right away. Isaac is still growing into his body, and, as such, will need more time to develop. Considering the impatience of most NBA franchises, that fact alone will make him one of the more polarizing prospects in this year’s draft. The good news is he already has 14 pounds on Ingram, who weighed only 196 pounds at the draft combine.
Unlike Ingram, who averaged nearly 35 minutes a game and got to dominate the ball on a Duke team with a short rotation last season, Isaac’s talents could be somewhat hidden on a deep Florida State team with a lot of other options on offense. If he doesn’t consistently put up big statistics, it will be hard for teams at the top of the lottery to take him over some of his more highly touted peers. DraftExpress has Isaac as the no. 7 pick in its mock draft, and he may end up being a steal if that’s the range he winds up being taken.
At the age of 19, he has shown the ability to defend multiple positions, shoot the ball, put it on the floor, create for himself and others, rebound, and protect the rim. His skill set would allow him to fit on almost any team in the lottery, and a player with his combination of size, shooting ability, and athleticism makes for a useful NBA player, even if he never develops any further. Isaac has a high floor, and an even higher ceiling. He’s a 6-foot-10 player who can do everything on the basketball court well, and there aren’t many players like that at any level of the game. Jonathan Isaac is not being talked about a lot right now, but that will change soon enough.