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Future Sixers: Jonathan Isaac’s Talent and Skills Would Be a Great Fit for the Sixers

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The last three weeks of basketball have been a surprise to anyone accustomed to the last three years of following this team. After going 4-17 in their previous one possession games, the Sixers have magically turned into Kyra Sedgwick when the game is on the line. It’s been crazy! It’s been great! That said, this run has lottery consequences, and every win makes it less likely that the Sixers will have a great shot at the highest picks.

We’ll allow others to litigate the importance of having a very high pick in this particular draft (although, for the record, I agree with Kyle that it should not be the highest priority at this point). Luckily for the Sixers, if there is one draft that looks favorable to teams in the 7-10 range, it’s this one. And perhaps most attractive of the prospects being projected in that range is Jonathan Isaac.

Isaac came into this season as a prospect type very much en vogue. At 6’10 with a wingspan over 7’0 and real perimeter skills on offense, he followed almost immediately in Brandon Ingram’s mold, and projected to have a similarly exciting freshman year in the NCAA. However, I was skeptical to begin the year, as I doubted the utility of his perimeter skills, and most excitement over his defense was predicated on his tools, rather than concrete production. If he disappointed in both regards, I didn’t think he would be much of a real prospect.

To that end, Isaac has been a wonderfully pleasant surprise, as he has been one of the standout perimeter defenders in the NCAA, and has spent his time swinging between the backcourt and the frontcourt on a loaded Florida State team enjoying its best season in its history (by win percentage). Isaac has been a key element in their success and, like so many intriguing prospects this year, his impact starts on the defensive end.

The biggest worry for Isaac coming into the season was whether he could move his feet or not. Often, draft prospects are lauded for having excellent size for their position, but it’s really because they should be playing a larger position. Nowhere is that more true than in oversized wings who lack the foot speed to hang on the perimeter, and Isaac projected to fit into that mold. The reality, however, has been a wonderfully fluid, quick, and agile player, with the hops to protect the rim mixed with the ability to contain the drive.

You can see that he has no difficulty moving on the perimeter, keeping his man in front, and dealing with the screen in his way, as he forces Brandon Robinson to an innocuous corner of the floor. He is rarely beaten off the dribble, and his active feet and quick hands enable him to wreak havoc in both the halfcourt and in transition.

While Dwayne Bacon ruined this play by fouling Isaiah Hicks from behind, Isaac effectively thwarted a 3-on-1 fastbreak thanks to his length, speed, and positioning. That’s not a common trait, and one that is hugely valuable (and possibly underrated) in the NBA. If you can hugely reduce the expected points per possession of the most efficient play in basketball, then there must be hidden value there.

But Isaac isn’t simply a big player with a small player’s skills on defense-- he also harnesses his length by protecting the rim and rebounding like a bona fide big man. His defensive rebounding rate of 24.5% would place him in the top quartile of all power forwards (not wings), and is the 3rd best rate among all wings in my database, behind only Andre Roberson and Kawhi Leonard.

He is quick off his feet with a long reach, which also helps him to have an outlier shot blocking presence on the wing. Watch how much ground he covers to deny Jayson Tatum at the rim on this play.

In a particularly strong freshman class that excels on the wings, Isaac’s defense stands out, both by the eye test and by the stats. Here is how he compares to the other freshman projected to go in the lottery this year. He leads the pack in each of the three categories, and none of them are particularly close.

Also in Isaac’s favor: His game will translate cleanly to the NBA. With his ability to impact the game on defense, he simply needs to be a non-negative on offense to help the team overall. The easiest way to do that is in finishing plays efficiently and knocking down open 3’s. Isaac has demonstrated a capacity to do both.

Isaac’s true shooting percentage of 64% is through the roof— it’s an elite mark for a wing prospect and largely a consequence of how the Seminoles use him on offense. Thanks to Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, he doesn’t need to shoulder much of the creation burden and has been turned largely into a finisher. He has taken to the role well, as he is an intuitive cutter and is shooting 72% at the rim in the halfcourt. Here again, his bounciness and length are real assets for him, as he is an easy target for lobs and can flush down dunks on backdoor cuts.

More importantly, Isaac has shown real utility as a floor-spacer already, and projects to be an above average shooter as he enters the NBA as well. He’s knocking down 82.4% of his free throw attempts and shooting 35.7% from 3 on 5 attempts per 40 minutes. Combining these attributes with his defense shows a player primed and ready to make an impact in an easily defined role.

Isaac would be an ideal fit next to Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as well. With three players 6’10 or taller manning the front court positions (not to mention Robert Covington potentially playing at the 2), the Sixers would have a thicket of arms and length that would be nearly impossible to play through. Isaac’s rim protection could help make up for Simmons’ deficiencies there, while both have the ability to switch onto small players, hedge hard, and trap in space.

On the offensive side of the court, his ability to spread the floor and knock down jumpers would be a great complement to both existing stars, and his height would present massive matchup headaches for opposing coaches. If they chose to guard Isaac with a taller defender to mitigate Simmons’ speed, Simmons could bully the player down low with Isaac and Embiid spreading the floor. If they chose to guard Simmons with a larger player, Isaac can shoot right over the top of any smaller players without much trouble. It’s hard to think of a more ideal frontcourt grouping for the Sixers’ existing stars.

While Isaac presents many enticing strengths, there is a reason he has been projected behind Jackson, Tatum, and Monk for much of this season— he simply lacks the creation ceiling that primary and secondary players are required to have. While Isaac has a nice handle, coordination, and ball skills, he has not displayed the creation ability that his peers have.

This is most evident in both his usage numbers, where he has not been asked to do very much, and his assist number, which are consistently in the bottom quartile of wing prospects.

Isaac isn’t a black hole or an unwilling passer, but it seems unlikely that he has the vision required to become a top shelf primary or secondary playmaker in the NBA. Even as a projected power forward, his raw AST% and adjusted for usage numbers place him below or near the 25th percentile.

As a souped up 3-&-D player, this isn’t a big issue, particularly since he has no outstanding TO problems, but as it concerns Isaac’s creation upside, it is a worry. Further, Isaac hasn’t shown much ability to get to his spots with the ball in his hand. His weapon of choice is a pull-up jumper, often proceeded by a jab-step or pump-fake, but he rarely drives to the hoop or flummoxes his defenders. He simply lacks the burst or the handle to drive by opponents.

Still, he has shown an ability to convert jumpers off the dribble at a reasonable rate, and he has enough strengths that the Sixers should be thrilled if they find themselves in a position to pick him. While Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum may provide higher ceilings with their potential to be two-way focal points, Isaac’s as safe a pick as could be. While I don’t expect him to reach the heights the other two may be capable of, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see him have the best career of the 3.

Perhaps it will be as a freaky 3rd banana next to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

(Also, I realized that I didn’t include much offensive footage. So here’s a typical scoring play for him:

And here is his most promising play of the season. Upside!

Are we good now? Good.)

Future Sixers Point Guard Power Rankings (Based Solely on Instagram Presence)

Another special contribution from the wife on this one. You got issues with the order? Take it up with her.

DISCLAIMER: Really I have no idea why everyone is captioning their photos with “GAMEDAY *purple devil emoji*” but it must be something to do with the photos and where they get them from or something so I just ignored that here BUT IT IRKED ME TO NO END LIKE REALLY JUST STOP

My personal ranking preference:

1. Lonzo Ball, UCLA (z02_)

I put Lonzo up top because I feel like he has the best balance of any of these guys of “basketball Lonzo” and “real life Lonzo.” Some of the other ‘grams look like they’re curated professionally by a team of PR people (and I should know, I’m one of those people). I just want to know that you’re real, you know what I’m saying? Plus, there are some unique photos on here – not just of him dunking and shit, though that’s there too. But artistic things. Like. What? I also can’t ignore that he almost doubles the next-highest guy, Smith, in followers, with a whopping 350k. That’s absurd. I only have 253 followers, and I’m pretty popular, so…

2. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky (swipathefox)

You know when you can tell that someone takes themselves seriously but also likes to have fun? That’s how I feel about this Instagram account. Like, yeah, “Be Phenomenal Or Be Forgotten” but also “#KFC” you know? I don’t care if that’s somehow a reference to Kentucky because that’s who he plays for, I’m just going to continue on with the idea that this kid loves him some KFC. Good for him. Also, THIS PICTURE SEALED THE DEAL. LOOK AT HIM. What a #goober.

Anyway, follow swipathefox if you want some bomb photos of De’Aaron Fox jumping really high and being cute.

3. Edmond Sumner, Xavier (edmondsumner)

SUMNER. You came in last place in my haircut rankings because your hair was boring. But your Instagram isn’t! We get a good dose of sweet basketball moves paired with a few photos of you and your crew. What more can you ask for in an account? Just stop ‘gramming photos that were taken at the same time like months apart, and you could see yourself at the top of this list. I DON’T CARE that he has the fewest followers. He deserves more.

4. Markelle Fultz, Washington (markellefultz)

Alright, so from a PR perspective this account is pretty good. Decent number of followers, lives up to expectations (“Ballislife”). There are some great photos on here, both in terms of basketball and life generally. It’s just kind of… boring? Like a lawn that’s too perfectly manicured. Sure, it looks nice, but there’s nothing to explore or discover. That being said, I don’t dislike this account. It’s just not my favorite. Though there’s definitely some more character as you scroll down to the bottom. Plus a cameo appearance from Steph Curry? You could do worse.

5. Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg (frank_ntilikina)

Ah Frank. You’re cute, but your Instagram could use some work. You’ve had this thing for more than 2 years and you only have 17 posts? Time to step up your game. But it’s super inoffensive, and actually well-curated for what’s there. Great caption work I have to say. Bien fait.

6. Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State (j3vans1)

Jawun, your Instagram definitely has an aesthetic, I just don’t think I like it. Why are ALL of your photos so skinny that they all have that stupid white border around them? And there is some HEAVY use of vignettes going on in a lot of these. I don’t think the pictures are bad at all! You just need a little help. If you’re looking for an… interesting… ‘gram filled with basketball, though, this is where you should go. I think.

7. Dennis Smith, NC State (desmith4)

I only have a few words about this Instagram because I could not get past this: WHY. ARE. YOU. INSTAGRAMMING. MEMES. The rest of your account isn’t terrible! It’s not near the guys at the top of this list. But for the love of basketball, just no.

What to Watch This Weekend:

Kansas (2) vs. Kentucky (4), 6:15pm, January 28, ESPN
Both teams are coming off losses, so this should be a good one as they each try to right the ship. There are very few teams in the country who can match Kentucky in athleticism, but Kansas may be one of the few that comes close. The difference might be in the frontcourt, as Kentucky will have a size advantage but Kansas will have a speed advantage. Should be great.
Prospects to watch: Josh Jackson, Devonte’ Graham (Kansas), Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo (Kentucky)

NC State vs. Louisville (13), 1:00pm, January 29, ACC Network
After Dennis Smith led the team to an upset of Duke in Cameron, he’ll have one of his stiffest tests of the season against Donovan Mitchell and Louisville’s awesome defense. It’s been hard for me to get a read on Smith, so if he dominates here, it would be hard to continue dinging him.
Prospects to watch: Dennis Smith (NC State), Donovan Mitchell, Deng Adel (Louisville)

Virginia (12) vs. Villanova (1), 1:00pm, January 29, FOX
Villanova is pretending to be from Philadelphia for a night, as they welcome the Cavaliers to a fun game at The Center. Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges will be up against one of the NCAA’s toughest defenses. London Perrantes will try to lead UVA to an upset victory.
Prospects to watch: Hart, Bridges (Villanova), Perrantes (maybe...?) (Virginia)

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