There was a lot to like about Isaiah Joe heading into the 2020 NBA Draft. He was a high-level shooter who hit 37.8 percent of his 9.1 three-point attempts per game in two years at Arkansas, a good complementary passer, and a fairly quick, smart team defender. As the 49th pick, he was a great-value find for the Sixers.
As you’d expect for a rookie on a No. 1 seed, Joe didn’t get to play too much for the Sixers last season. He only appeared in 41 games and averaged 9.3 minutes a night. A lot of his 383 total minutes came in January when the Sixers were shorthanded and dealing with COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Nevertheless, even with his limited chances, Joe demonstrated the skills he needed to.
First and foremost, he fired away from three with immense confidence, averaging 10 three-point attempts per 36 minutes (making 36.8 percent). Even though it’s a small sample, Joe’s advanced shooting skillset and high volume has been evident at every level — from college, to the NBA, to Summer League and now preseason. He has a quick release, he’s comfortable shooting off movement, his range extends a few feet beyond the arc, closeouts don’t faze him, he knows how to relocate to find space, and he can hit the odd pull-up.
Joe’s defense was often genuinely impressive for a rookie as well. While his slight build limits him on the ball against stronger, explosive guards and wings, he still moves his feet well and competes. Off the ball, his sharp IQ stands out. Joe generally knows where to be, and showed he can provide timely help when teammates are caught out of place or someone needs to contest a drive or cut to the rim.
“Of course I’m gonna do what I do and shoot the ball, but I really predicate a lot of my game on [the] defensive end,” Joe said at Wednesday’s practice. “Showing that I can be versatile, showing that I’m not a liability on the defensive end, so that’s one thing I’ve really been taking pride in.”
Now, as his second NBA regular season approaches, Joe believes he’s in a position to fight for minutes. He’s right, and has a real case to crack the rotation.
Joe’s shooting can be relied upon. Where he needs to develop offensively is inside the arc. 79.7 percent of his field goal attempts as a rookie came from three. It’s fine for him to be a shooting specialist, but polishing his handle and being able to get to the rim with more straight-line drives past closeouts or occasional ball screens would give him useful counters when he’s forced off the three-point line.
Joe further refining his playmaking, building on the solid complementary passing he showed in college, would also help him broaden his game.
The encouraging thing for Joe is that through Summer League and the first two games of preseason, he’s flashed more growth in these areas. In Summer League, as he got to enjoy a larger role and averaged 14 points and 3.3 assists per game, he looked more comfortable handling the ball and running a few pick-and-rolls, showing off more playmaking to hit cutters or kick to shooters than we’ve typically seen from him in Philly so far.
“I’ve always worked on my ball-handling, because you never know when you’re going to have to put the ball on the floor, either to create for yourself or other teammates,” Joe said after Thursday’s game against the Raptors. “Like Tobias [Harris] said, we really predicate our game on moving the ball, so that comes with attacking, getting to the lane, and spraying out to other people. So that’s one thing I’ve really been working on.”
In Summer League and the start of preseason, Joe’s looked more confident creating opportunities inside the three-point line. After living beyond the arc as a rookie and attempting just 4 total shots at the rim, preseason plays like those below are encouraging.
“[Joe] just shoots the heck out of the ball,” Doc Rivers said after the Sixers’ latest preseason game, when Joe tallied 15 points, 3 triples, 2 steals, 1 block, and a few confident plays off the dribble. “He’s starting to put the ball on the floor, that’s something he couldn’t do. That’s where the skill development stuff comes in. When I look at him now compared to this same time last year, he made plays tonight getting into the paint — there’s no way he could have done that last year. So good for him, because he’s putting all the work in.”
Joe recognizes where he can improve on defense, too. Even though he can compete on the ball, his slender frame makes it harder for him to contain bigger wings on drives to the rim. Joe knows he needs to add some strength, and that’s what he’s been working on.
“One thing is just working on my build, getting bigger, trying to gain weight,” Joe explained at practice this week. “Other than that, I feel like I have a pretty good IQ on the defensive end. I feel like I’m in the right spots most of the time when it comes down to it. Now it’s just about being reliable and letting my teammates know that I have their backs.”
Joe probably won’t ever be an on-ball stopper, but he can still be a plus defensively. And if he can strengthen his on-ball defense at all, keep disrupting plays with his IQ, and learn with more experience, he can easily improve.
He’s off to a great start in preseason, too, reinforcing the qualities he displayed as a rookie. Joe’s been highly active and aware off the ball, breaking up passing lanes, and competing on the ball by sliding his feet well and contesting with discipline.
“He’s stronger than he was last year,” Rivers said after the Sixers’ win on Thursday. “And this [Raptors team] is a tough team to judge because they have a lot of big guards, a lot of guys that post you, a lot of guys that cut through you, a very physical team. And I thought overall he held his own. He’s crafty, he’s tough, he’ll fight.”
“He just weighs a buck 20, at the end of the day,” Rivers added with a laugh. “But he’s not going to give in to it and that’s what I like about him.”
Joe shouldn’t just be relegated to garbage time again. So who can he potentially steal some minutes from?
Furkan Korkmaz is a useful rotation player, one who offers efficient shooting on high volume, decent size at 6’7”, and improved (albeit still very limited) defense. But he’s someone Joe can at least compete with for a few minutes. For a start, Joe has better defensive tools to work with. He has an edge in quickness and the instincts to help off the ball. In time, Joe can also prove he can provide similar value as a scorer/shooter — if not more, providing he keeps developing off the dribble.
The main candidate for Joe to edge past in the rotation at this point, though, is Shake Milton. When considering Milton’s turbulent play since the first few weeks of last season and his limits as a ball-handler, there’s a clear path to Joe taking more minutes as someone who can fit in easily and help at both ends of the floor.
For now, as Ben Simmons holds out and no new players are coming in, the Sixers’ rotation has shrunk and they’re short on ball-handling. They simply don’t have many options besides giving Milton some of that responsibility. But Joe has quickly become a more intriguing two-way player. Ultimately, he’s good enough to at least take some minutes from Milton, who averaged 23.2 per game last season.
It shouldn’t be too hard to create a spot for Joe near the end of the Sixers’ rotation. With his ability at both ends, the promise he displayed as a rookie, and the signs of development he’s shown in the build-up to this season, Joe deserves a chance to prove what he can do. The upside is there for him to become a valuable contributor.