Jonathan Isaac, Individual Offense and Why Feel Is Important.
This piece will attempt to examine Jonathan Isaac through the lens of recent NBA prospects, Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins among them. Namely with respect to the difference between a feel for individual offense and offense that aids one’s team.
Of course each prospect showed flashes otherwise. At times making solid reads. Sometimes, even great passes. Indeed, if you want to see a few from Jonathan Isaac, you can read this piece by Jonathan Tjarks, which features several promising examples of passing ability. Evidence that Isaac sees the floor and makes quick reads and reactions.
However, from my experience of watching Isaac, which is certainly far from extensive, this is not usually the case. He’s as likely to drive into a no-go area, only to force up a difficult shot or turn the ball over, as he is to read the defense and find the proper outlet.
Jonathan Isaac vs the 2014 Draft and beyond. A Look at the Numbers.
In general, there’s a difference between a prospect who merely defers to his teammates, like the Kansas version of Andrew Wiggins, and a prospect who is unselfish in a way that actually benefits his team, like this year’s version of Lonzo Ball. Which is to say, there are generally reasons that the prospects most similar to Isaac put up such poor peripheral numbers.
And here is the same table, organized by the ratio of Assist Percentage to Usage Percentage.
1) What I want to point out here is that players who develop into perimeter initiators generally don’t play the way Isaac does, not even as Freshman. We have Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Victor Oladipo. There’s a reason they are near the top of both lists. And please remember, that’s with a player like Victor Oladipo not even being very good as a Freshman. Nor even an especially great initiator as a pro.
2) Of course we have the big-time exception. Kevin Durant. A player to whom Jonathan Isaac is frequently compared. Because both are athletic, even for NBA players, with dribbling ability and the ability to put the ball in the basket. However, not only was Kevin Durant perhaps the most impactful Freshman of the last 15 years, I’d wager he’s significantly quicker with the ball in his hands. And just much more offensively skilled upon entering college.
So I’m not so sure this is not the most wishful thinking of all wishful thinking comparisons. An if everything, and I mean everything, goes right hope against hope. (In fairness to those who make the comparison, the wishful thinking aspects are often acknowledged hand-in-hand.)
3) When many of your closest comparables are guys who were considered high pick draft busts, it’s perhaps not a good sign. Michael Beasley, Derrick Williams, Anthony Bennett, etc . . . At least not if we’re expecting Isaac to become a guy a team wants to run offense through. What’s worse than that is that many low-level PF and C prospects who failed because they lack intuitive understanding of the game, or took years to succeed, actually compare to Isaac. And from what I’ve seen, it’s not by accident.
Even if the statistics do indeed overstate Isaac’s lack of feel, the question is, by how much? Because feel and understanding of team offensive concepts are in most cases attributes prospects maintain from game to game.
4) That’s not to say it’s all bad for Isaac. A player like Jabari Parker has become a quite good finisher of plays, both near the rim and at the three-point line. (60%+ at the rim. Near 40% at the three-point line.) Harrison Barnes and Robert Covington are two other somewhat similar (in some ways superficially, in some ways not) college Freshmen. Each developed a useful NBA offensive game, granted they are used in the right role.
5) Like Robert Covington, Jonathan Isaac also has significant defensive potential and actual on-court results that gives him an avenue to value that many of the other players most similar to Isaac just do not have. Isaac could be a major impact defender, able to legitimately guard 2 or 3 positions and wreak havoc with both his athleticism and intensity.
Though I will give you one aspect of Isaac’s defensive game to watch for, which might hint at his lack of overall game feel. Simply, it seems that sometimes there’s a half beat of confusion from Isaac’s teammates when he switches onto their man. Not that he is necessarily wrong to switch, as FSU’s defense is in large part predicated upon such play. But I’m not sure if he’s always communicating very well. It’s something that’s impossible to tell from watching at home, so take this as perhaps just a quirk.
6) I’ve included Trent Forrest, Jonathan Isaac’s fellow FSU Freshman here. Now, Forrest is a player who actually has good feel, at least when I’ve seen him. He not only knows what he can and can’t do. He seems to know what his teammates can and can’t do.
He’s also very athletic, with a big frame for a guy who runs some point. In addition, he moves his feet well, and like Isaac, and not only has the chops to play defense but tries exceptionally hard in doing so. Next, add some dribbling and some finishing skill. If Forrest could shoot the ball with consistency, which it doesn’t look like he can, I’m not sure he’s not ultimately the better prospect than Isaac.
But that’s not my point. My point is that Forrest too often defers to Rathan-Mayes, to Dwayne Bacon, even to Jonathan Isaac. What he still does is frequently connect on passes that generate scores for teammates. Hence, even though each player has a relatively equal number of turnovers, Forrest has a much stronger overall profile that far exceeds many successful NBA wings. (And yes, Forrest, despite not getting much love, is a legitimate NBA-type athlete.)
Basically, Jonathan Isaac’s problems aren’t all context. Even if Isaac looks at times like a player who has it all. Or mostly everything. As in the Tjarks’ piece. As no one could deny, these passes Isaac made earlier in the season are legitimately exciting. But I could point you to a number of exciting passes Andrew Wiggins made when he was at Kansas. Or even perhaps Jabari Parker, when he was at Duke. Yet neither has become much of anything besides a solid finisher of plays (in Parker’s case) or a likely miscast volume scorer (in the case of Wiggins.)
The On-Off Numbers of Jabari Parker
To make another point about the player Jonathan Isaac may develop into on offense, this is Jabari Parker’s 2016-2017 Season so far. (per Basketball-Reference)
What do we notice? Surprisingly that Milwaukee has been better on offense with Parker off the court than on it. By 3.5 points. (107 ORtg to 110.5.)
That is to say, not every elite or near-elite finisher, and a 57% TS% is quite good, has an elite effect on the offense.
As more evidence, here’s Harrison Barnes 2014-2015 season. A season he finished with an identical 57% True Shooting number.
Now here is Klay Thompson, with 59% True Shooting numbers. (Also per Basketball-Reference)
Now, that’s a big difference in effect, despite a small difference in True Shooting Percentage. +1.4 Points per Barnes. +10.5 points for Thompson. And the reasons are manifold.
Thompson gets more attempts up than Barnes for one, nearly doubling him on the season. But there’s two other places Thompson is the far superior player as well. One, Thompson is actually the much more lethal shooter, and thus was generally forced to shoot jumpers under more duress. With more defensive pressure in his face. The beneficiary of that is a player like Barnes, who was often the player to which defenses were trying to funnel shots.
That means open stationary shots for a player like Barnes. Shots on the move and under pressure for a player like Thompson so even were the Usage numbers not different, we would not be talking about near identical players.
The other important point I want to point out is evident if you look at the similarities and differences between the two sets of numbers. Basically the same almost everywhere except two places. One eFG%, where the team drops off considerably if Thompson is off the court. (We’ve just went over one of the reasons why.) The other Team Assist Percentage, where the team is 2.4% worse with Barnes off the court than with him on it.
Which is to say, Barnes is a crappy ball mover, whereas Klay Thompson is at least a good one. Though I think these numbers perhaps understate how good at moving the ball Thompson is. From looking at the Synergy Stats (which I keep alluding to but have yet to write about) an average Thompson pass is worth far more than that of an average player. And I don’t think the effect is entirely explainable by the fact that he’s on a good team. Or else Harrison Barnes would be better as well.
The point I’m trying to tease out is that having good, efficient ball movers and creators carries real value for an offense. This is really not a point that can be undersold.
So that while a player like Jonathan Isaac may ultimately be a somewhat valuable offensive piece (if there isn’t some unexpected career growth, allowed by his excellent athleticism), a team that carries Isaac may also be limiting their ultimate offensive upside because playing Isaac may take a guy who can pass the ball off the court.
That’s not to say Isaac can’t provide some value as an offensive player. Or be an incredible valuable player overall. A 6’11” frame with Wing-type movement skills plus energy, defense and finishing ability is a potentially very valuable combination. Potentially a +3 to +7 player. Depending on just how elite a finisher Isaac becomes and how valuable a defensive player.
However, if you are grading Isaac merely as a likely plus defender and not an elite one, there are legitimate reasons to doubt Isaac as having an equivalent upside of the likely Top 5 players in this draft. At least without some on court offensive improvement.
That being said, there might still be some possible arguments for Isaac in that range. Specifically if you peg his skills as more likely to transfer to the NBA than those of guy like Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball, Dennis Smith, Jr. or even Josh Jackson. But given the choice, I’d still prefer to build a team with players that really understand the game.