In so many ways, Florida State freshman forward Jonathan Isaac with his height, reach and skills uncommon for such a tall man embodies the new NBA. Yet when his name is called on Thursday night in Brooklyn, there’s a chance he’ll decline one of league’s grand draft-night traditions.
Isaac stands nearly 6-11 in his sneakers, well over 7 feet if you include a head of hair that might make tugging on the cap representing the team that drafts him impossible.
He calls his hair the best in this year’s draft and there’s a pundit or two who believe he someday could be its best player as well — when his body catches up with his game.
Isaac first grew out his “frohawk” — sides shaved, hair teased as you high on top as you like — in high school when he moved away from Naples, Fla., to attend first a charter school and then IMG Academy in his home state. Away from home for the first time, he chose to do so because he could and simply because he doesn’t think he looks good with short hair.
“No hats,” he told Sirius/XM NBA Radio when asked about that draft-night tradition. “I’ve asked a lot of people that question: Is it mandatory I put that hat on? But I don’t know. If I have to put it on, I’ll put it on.”
He was a 6-3 10th-grader once upon a time with guard skills before he sprouted seven inches over the next two years, but his shooting range and ball handling never left him.
Neither did the way a guard looks at the game.
All at the tender age of 19, after just one collegiate season for a Florida State team upset by Xavier in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
“He sees the game through a very mature set of eyes,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Sometimes he really thinks almost like a coach, like a veteran-type player. That comes from him being skilled enough and confident enough in his ability. He can give you whatever you need.”
Isaac’s intellect, court vision, ball-handling and passing skills, athleticism and ability to shoot out to NBA three-point range could send him sixth overall to Orlando in Thursday’s draft, possibly even fifth to Sacramento.
If he still is available when the Wolves pick seventh, Isaac seems to be the best combination of defense and shooting for a team that needs both. He doesn’t shoot it as effortlessly as Arizona’s 7-footer Lauri Markkanen or score as surely as Kentucky guard Malik Monk.
But long and nimble for a man so tall, Isaac projects as a player who can do what those two cannot: block shots and defend as many as four positions in the pros — and maybe even center in a downsized NBA — once his body matures.
Hamilton calls him a player made for the modern NBA because of his ability to defend guards out on the floor after the defense switches assignments on pick-and-roll plays. In those respects, he might be a perfect complement beside offensive-minded Wolves star Karl-Anthony Towns.
Gophers fans might remember Isaac’s 14-point, 13-rebound double-double performance during a 75-67 victory over their team in November in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game.
In that game, Isaac attacked the backboards and troubled the Gophers with his 7-1 wingspan. He took defenders off the dribble away from the basket and showed a nice pullup jump shot, but avoided contact at times.
He did so for a Florida State team that regularly played 10 or more players and didn’t feature Isaac as much as you might expect with a top-10 national prep recruit.
ESPN draft analyst and former college coach Fran Fraschilla calls himself a “huge” fan of the young man with all that game and all that hair.
“He’s 6-11, freshman, can play ‘3’ [small forward], ‘4’ [power forward] and eventually ‘5’ [center] in the modern NBA,” Fraschilla said. “He can defend, shoot from outside, great kid and also has a good IQ for the game. He’s a perfect example of a guy who could fall to seven and become an All-Star and potentially the best player in this draft.”
On the flip side, he weighs only 205 pounds, much of it arms and legs. Strength will be his biggest issue entering the league, and Isaac said he looks forward to “the struggle” that such a challenge will present.
“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Isaac told NBA Radio at last month’s draft lottery. “Focus on my body, eat right. I just have to wait for that point where your body turns and it hasn’t yet … I’m expecting those questions. My answer is I know the player I am and I know the player I’m going to be. It’s just going to take time.”
Like K.D. and K.G.?
Hamilton advises that nobody should confuse skinny with soft, at least not in this case.
“Jonathan might be slender, but he’s not weak by any stretch of the imagination,” said Hamilton, a career college coach who worked one NBA season for Washington 16 years ago. “He’s in the weight room doing what he has to do. He has improved his strength, there’s no doubt about that. He’ll get stronger because he works hard.”
Isaac isn’t the first skinny guy with skills to make the NBA. Anybody remember a rookie named Kevin Garnett in 1995 or one named Kevin Durant in 2007?
“I compare all tall, skinny guys who can do the stuff he can do to K.D.,” North Carolina guard Isaiah Hicks said. “Now K.D., the same thing. You wouldn’t have expected him to do all that he has done. Now, everybody knows. But back then, just look. Even K.G. was just some skinny guy. But they take advantage of what they have.
“They use that length, that size against their opponents. We watch old clips of college players and you see K.D. back then and you wonder if that’s same guy from Texas. Now you see what he did to get to this level. It’s possible.”
Hicks and North Carolina beat Isaac and Florida State when the teams played last season. Florida State teammate Dwayne Bacon competed against Isaac every day in practice.
“He’s going to be amazing some day,” Bacon said. “He’s a guy who can do it all. He can guard a 1, a 2, a 3. He can drive. He’s stronger than a lot of people think, sort of like how people thought when K.D. came out.”
The possibility of what he might become could make Isaac a top-five pick Thursday. He probably won’t be drafted any lower than seventh, by a Wolves team that has its own draft-night hat tradition: Players such as Ray Allen, Brandon Roy and O.J. Mayo wore two hats on draft night, after the Wolves selected and then quickly traded them away.
The question this time: Will Jonathan Isaac wear even one hat Thursday over all that hair?
“Don’t worry about it,” Hamilton said. “He’ll cut it off if they ask him.”