One of the oldest and most basic rules of this regular feature is “never evaluate a player before his third season in the league.”
Because there have been some truly dreadful debut campaigns by guys who went on to become solid NBA players.
In recent years, we’ve seen De’Aaron Fox put up a truly dreadful rookie campaign, posting a minus-1.1 VORP and negative Win Shares in his first year in the league.
In Year 2, Fox posted 2.3 VORP and .103 WS/48, which are the kinds of numbers you see from borderline All-Stars, and in 45 games in Year 3, he’s posted an even better .117 WS/48 and another 2.3 VORP prorated to the 81 games he played last season.
Domantas Sabonis was wretched in his debut campaign with Oklahoma City, posting a 6.9 PER, .022 WS/48, and minus-1.0 VORP, the kinds of numbers that, especially for forwards, presage washing out of the league by the end of a guy’s rookie contract.
This year, Sabonis made the All-Star team, and last year, his .197 WS/48 equaled the totals put up by Kyrie Irving and Karl-Anthony Towns. This year, his 2.9 VORP in 62 games raises real questions about just who the biggest value addition truly was from the Paul George trade that brought Sabonis and Victor Oladipo (himself good for only .026 WS/48 and 0.3 VORP as a rookie) to Indiana.
But this isn’t about any of those guys.
It’s about a guy who, hampered by injuries as a rookie, posted just .021 WS/48 and 0.1 VORP in 27 games, less than one win over 82 games more valuable than any competent forward you could fish out of the G-League.
Jonathan Isaac got off to a rough start.
And even though he got injured this year, again missing major amounts of time as Orlando careens toward being one of the worst 8 seeds since the NBA went to 29 teams in the 1995-96 season and 8th became, by mathematical design, the median record for the Eastern Conference, Isaac has given us a large enough sample size to evaluate whether he is, in fact, any good.
We’re using the “rookie scale” for this one, defining the question in terms of “if Isaac’s career trajectory looks at least as good as someone like Fox or Sabonis and not the stagnant mediocrity of Lonzo Ball, he gets at least Plausible if not Confirmed.”
With that in mind (it’s amazing how many people rip me on Twitter because they fail at that reading-comprehension hurdle, and by amazing I mean dear gods people are idiots)…
The Counting Stats
Per game, Isaac has risen from 5.4 points and 3.7 rebounds to 9.6/5.5 and 12.0/6.9.
He has also doubled his assists from 0.7 as a rookie to 1.4 as a third-year player.
And even when you account for him playing 29.9 minutes per game instead of 19.7 as a rook, his numbers still go up along a similar steady track on a per-36-minute basis.
So a guy with talent figured out how to play, got more minutes, and scored and rebounded more efficiently. So far, so good (and so well-reflected in a PER that went from 9.8 to 13.0 to 16.9, that aggregator of fantasy stats bearing out the eye test.)
His True Shooting and eFG% are both up, he’s shooting a modest 33 percent from long range with the potential to improve as the rest of his game rounds out (he shot 34.8 percent as a rookie, giving a glimpse of at least a league-average ceiling if he puts in the work), and he’s shown a good nose for the rim, hitting 66.1 percent of his shots inside three feet.
So far, so good.
The Advanced Stats
Breaking above the Starter’s Mendoza Line (.100 WS/48) in Year 3 is kind of the ultimate test, and Isaac, after falling just short of that mark last year (.096), finally busted his chest through the tape to post .114 this season.
WS/48 is often relative; it’s easier to rack up win shares when your team actually wins—just ask Paul George how nice it was to no longer have to carry a wretched Pacers team where his only valves to bleed off having to take awful contested shots were Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey.
So let’s do a simple exchange rate. Isaac has .114 WS/48 on a Magic team with 30 wins. Sabonis has .168 on a Pacers team with 39 wins. .114 times 1.3 equals .148.
And “not quite as good as an All-Star despite playing for a garbage fire franchise” says something.
And even though WS/48 tends to favor big men over guards, he’s still right at about the same level as De’Aaron Fox.
You see where this is going.
If he can stay healthy, and that’s a huge if, Isaac has a chance to put together a true breakout season and join the NBA’s elite.
The guy’s ceiling and his career track both point the same way. This is a guy who’s going to make an All-Star team unless his tiny media market and his papier-maché knees cut his career short.
Is Jonathan Isaac any good? Yes. Confirmed.