For nearly two years, Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac has faced the same question: When will he return after sitting out the last two seasons?
The answer hasn’t changed much over the last year, but he feels closer to getting back on the floor than he has at any other point during his rehabilitation process, saying his “legs are the strongest they’ve been.”
“I want it to be sooner than later,” Isaac told the Orlando Sentinel during the team’s media day Monday. “I feel like it’s going to be sooner than later. We’re not putting anything out in terms of exactly when it’s going to be, but I know it’s going to be soon.”
Isaac was one of few Magic players whose status was unknown entering Monday along with Gary Harris, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in late August after tearing his meniscus, and Markelle Fultz, who fractured his big left toe in mid-September.
Harris and Fultz will be sidelined for training camp, Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman told reporters, and timelines for their returns weren’t disclosed.
Their absences were expected since their injuries occurred recently.
He missed the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons and hasn’t played since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the NBA bubble on Aug. 2, 2020 — over 25 months ago.
The lone setback Isaac had came in mid-March when he suffered a right hamstring injury that required surgery — which Isaac referred to as a “tweak,” raising questions about why the journey of getting back onto the floor has taken as long as it has and how he’s not gotten frustrated.
“It’s a process,” Isaac told the Sentinel. “At the end of the day, it’s a timetable. Me getting frustrated isn’t going to accelerate it anymore. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I know I’m coming back, I know I’m going to play this season. That’s what I’m holding onto.”
Isaac’s on-court work has mainly been sprinting, jumping, body-contact work and playing one-on-one with coaches.
Weltman said Isaac won’t participate in live-action group or five-on-five drills when training camp starts on Tuesday — a crucial step for a player looking to come back from injury.
“Jonathan will be integrated slowly,” Weltman said. “He won’t participate in a lot of the full-team, live-practice components. I hate to sound like a broken record. I know this has been a long process. We’re hopeful to have him back during the season.
“It’s a very slow, painstaking process. Obviously, I don’t want to put a timetable on it because it’s just open-ended. We just don’t know. Some of it is he has to put the work in and when that next level is reached, he’ll move up. That’s under the attention of our performance staff, medical staff and, most importantly, it’s how Jonathan feels as he progresses.”
Isaac is entering the second year of a 4-year, $69.6 million contract he signed with Orlando in December 2020 — four months after his ACL injury.
Because he didn’t play last season, his $17.4 million salaries for the 2022-23, 2023-24 and 2024-25 seasons became partially or non-guaranteed because of an Exhibit 3 (Prior Injury Exclusion) clause in his contract, according to ESPN.
He’s guaranteed $16 million for 2022-23 (fully guaranteed $17.4 million if he’s on the roster past Jan. 10, 2023), $7.4 million for 2023-24 (fully guaranteed $17.4 million after Jan. 10, 2024) and has a non-guaranteed salary for 2024-25 (fully guaranteed $17.4 million if he’s on the roster past Jan. 10, 2025).
Isaac has appreciated the Magic’s patience during his rehabilitation process.
“They’ve been great,” Isaac said. “Not even them putting pressure on me. It’s me putting the pressure on them, to be honest with you. I want to do this right and don’t want to have any more injuries. I want to take my time and get this thing solidified and get back to playing basketball.”
Isaac said he’s fully recovered from the procedures to his left knee and right hamstring while acknowledging he isn’t 100% from the standpoint of being in game shape and playing at game speed, which he’ll focus on moving forward.
“There are no more hurdles that we have to clear,” Isaac said. “We’ve kind of hit these different points of the sprinting work, the jumping work, the body contact work and now it’s time to put it all together with the way we’re working out where it’s like, ‘You’re guarding this guy, you’re on offense over here and you’re hitting this guy.’ Can we put it all together and do it enough to where we feel comfortable to let you out there?
“If it’s on me, I feel comfortable right now. But they’re going to give me the timeline and just take one day at a time.”