Jonathan Isaac tried to save a little face. On Monday, Isaac went in front of reporters at Orlando Magic media day after a bizarre weekend story emerged, claiming that Isaac was not only unvaccinated but had descended into the realm of disinformation and conspiracy theory. In the article, Rolling Stone writer Matt Sullivan noted Isaac “started studying Black history and watching Donald Trump press conferences” as players were being inoculated from Covid-19 in March and developed a “distrust of Dr. Anthony Fauci.” A day later, Isaac sought to calm the waters.
He said he was, “badly misrepresented,” in the story and presented himself as a level-headed and thoughtful guy: “I’m not anti-vax. I’m not anti-medicine. I’m not anti-science. I didn’t come to my current vaccination status by studying black history or watching Donald Trump press conferences. I have nothing but the utmost respect for every health care worker in Orlando and all across the world that have worked tirelessly to keep us safe. My mom has worked in health care for a very long time. I thank God I live in a society where vaccines are possible and we can protect ourselves and have the means to protect ourselves in the first place.”
Sounds good. But then Isaac went on to say that while he thanks his Higher Power for the presence of vaccines, he is “uncomfortable” with taking that vaccine himself. Anyone who nudges him to get vaccinated, he said, is guilty of, “bullying” and “ridicule.”
Sigh. What to do with Jonathan Isaac?
One day into the NBA’s 2021-22 season, vaccination against Covid-19 has already proven to be a vexing issue that could severely impact teams like the Nets and Warriors, who play in cities with vaccine mandates and have significant players—Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn and Andrew Wiggins in San Francisco—who have refused the vaccine. Visiting players, too, will be barred from playing at Golden State, Brooklyn or New York if they can’t show they’ve had the shots.
Vaccine denial is a bit more commonplace in central Florida than the coastal metropolises, though, so Isaac and the Magic won’t have to worry about being banned from playing at home. The problem for Orlando as a franchise is that the question—what to do with Jonathan Isaac—still does not have an easy answer, and that goes beyond Covid-19.
Can Jonathan Isaac Be A Leader For The Orlando Magic?
Cross off “trade” as a option. That’s not happening, certainly not now. The Magic have invested heavily in Isaac as a franchise player—he begins a four-year, $70 million contract extension this season—with precious little return on that investment, and trading him with his value at a pow point makes little sense. Isaac has been riddled with injuries since entering the league, playing only 136 games in four seasons, including missing all of last year after having surgery to repair both a torn meniscus and a torn ACL, injuries he suffered during the NBA’s Covid-19 restart in the summer of 2020.
There is a bigger problem for the Magic here, one that goes back to Isaac’s entry into the league. He is deeply and vocally religious, which is not a bad thing in itself but has left him largely out of step with his teammates. He is also not the type to go along to get along, and is willing to take the unpopular stance. Several teammates raised eyebrows in 2020 when virtually all NBA players in the Orlando bubble knelt for the national anthem as part of nationwide protests against police violence. Isaac, of course, did not. There’s also the old story from his rookie year, when Isaac invited teammates to watch him deliver a sermon at his church in Florida, but none came.
Because he is unvaccinated, Isaac will have to remain socially distant from teammates this season. But that’s nothing unusual—he’s been socially distant from most of them during his whole career.
“It’s a problem,” one former member of the Magic franchise noted. “He is the guy you’d like to have as your leader, the best player, the one who gets everyone fired up. He has the talent for that, the game for that—dunks and blocked shots. But he doesn’t have that personality. He’s not that guy, I think that is understood. It means you have to get leadership from someone else and you might not like that but, you know, as long as he produces on the floor, that is what is important.”
Production remains a question for Isaac, too. After a bump up in his numbers in 2019-20, his third NBA season, to 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and an impressive 2.3 blocked shots, Isaac missed his entire Year 4 and now is coming back to a fully remade team, looking to rebuild with young players like Wendell Carter Jr. and rookie Jalen Suggs. and When he was last on the floor, he was surrounded by veterans like Nikola Vucevic, D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon, and was the fourth offensive option.
The Magic still have some elders—Robin Lopez, Terrence Ross, Michael Carter-Williams, E’Twaun Moore—but none beyond Ross figure to play significant roles. Isaac is coming back to a team not as a young guy being brought along slowly, but as a star being expected to lead.
That is a challenge. He’s been off the court for more than a year and will have to work his way back into game shape, and past the mental hurdles that come with knee surgery. All the while, he will have a new role, a new position within the team, which is not easy for a guy to whom Teammates do not flock. Isaac’s vaccine position won’t much help his standing. That, though, has long been the case with him.