In a decision that could signal a new avenue to the NBA for elite American basketball players, Top 10 high school prospect Jonathan Isaac told Sports Illustrated on Friday that he will explore declaring for the 2016 NBA draft directly from prep school.
Isaac, a 6'10" small forward from IMG (Fla.) Academy, said in a phone interview that he expects to take advantage of a new rule that allows prospects to enter the NBA draft and return to college if they don’t feel good about their projected draft position. The new rule allows Isaac to participate in the NBA draft combine, hold an NBA workout and pull out of the draft without compromising his amateur standing at Florida State, where he’s signed to play next season.
Isaac, 18, and IMG officials expect that he’ll be eligible for the 2016 NBA draft because he started high school in 2011, which would make him one year removed from his initial graduating class. Isaac did not graduate from high school in 2015, but IMG officials expect he’d be eligible because former IMG player Satnam Singh had a similar circumstance and was eligible for the 2015 Draft. (Despite Singh being from India, he was classified as an American because he attended high school here.)
There’s vagaries in the NBA rule, which states that a player is eligible for the draft if "the player is or will be at least nineteen (19) years of age during the calendar year in which the draft is held, and (B) with respect to a player who is not an international player . . . at least (1) NBA season has elapsed since the player's graduation from high school (or, if the player did not graduate from high school, since the graduation of the class with which the player would have graduated had he graduated from high school."
A source with knowledge of the NBA’s thinking on Isaac said that there’s been no communication between Isaac and the NBA. As of now, the NBA considers his graduating class to be 2016, which would make him not eligible for the current draft. However, the situation could be open to interpretation or legal challenge.
In Isaac’s case, that’s because he could have gradated from a traditional high school in 2015. In the case of Singh, he started in the fall of 2010 and was eligible for the 2015 Draft. “If Jon chooses to do this,” IMG official Dan Barto said, “we’re going to explore every avenue like we did with Satnam.”
Isaac, who turns 19 in October, is ranked the No. 9 overall player by scout.com and is considered the centerpiece of Florida State’s No. 11 overall class.
Isaac, who is unsure when he’d formally declare, said the only thing that could hold him back from exploring this avenue, provided he's eligible, would be injuries. He acknowledges that the projected weak 2016 NBA draft crop played into his decision to potentially test the waters. He’s yet to make a decision on precisely what draft slot he’d need to be promised in order to stay in the draft. Isaac added that he’d be happy to go to Florida State, but he’s appreciative that this option exists.
“I think it’s cool and scary,” he said. “A little bit of both. It’s cool because no one has done it in a decade, and it’s still scary because I don’t want it to be a bad decision.”
Isaac would be the first top American high school player to enter the NBA Draft since the so-called “one-and-done” rule was instituted in the 2005 NBA collective bargaining agreement.
Others like Brandon Jennings (Italy), Jeremy Tyler (Israel) and Emmanuel Mudiay (China) have gone overseas to play the year after high school to become draft eligible. Isaac’s decision potentially opens the door for a new path to the NBA that doesn’t involve college or playing overseas, as both those options involve prospects facing stiffer competition and exposing weaknesses in their games.
“I honestly think this is a game-changer,” said Barto, IMG Academy’s head skills trainer. “The high school kids are going to have to make a decision. Do I go to college and be exposed like Skal Labissiere at Kentucky or move down the draft charts like Dedric Lawson at Memphis and fall off the radar like a lot of the kids that graduated last year? Or should I be Emmanuel Mudiay and go to China or go to an IMG and be the seventh pick?”
Isaac acknowledges that his decision is a “cool story” and said he wouldn’t be surprised if others follow his path. That could include top high school players taking a postgraduate year instead of going to college. “Some people may not be so thrilled about going to college,” Isaac said. “Why not take a postgraduate year and test the waters? I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
Isaac said the early feedback he’s gotten is that he could get drafted anywhere from No. 14 to No. 24. It’s far too early to get a real feel on Isaac’s stock, especially because he’s missed more than 10 games of this prep school season with a stress fracture in his right foot. But a likely scenario for Isaac would be a team drafting him, stashing him in the D-League for a year and developing him there.
IMG coach John Mahoney compares the style of Isaac’s game to Kevin Durant, as he’s a big and mobile wing with a deft shooting touch. Isaac is averaging more than 22 points per game for IMG (16–6) this season. While his long and lanky frame is tantalizing, he’s also skinny and would need to gain weight and strength on his 200-pound frame.
Isaac will head into the process with an open mind, as he said he considers the coaches, players and recruits at Florida State “family” and would be excited to go there. “I still think I’m going to do fine in college if I do go to Florida State,” he said. “I feel in my heart I’m going to get to the league no matter what. Either route I’d be O.K.”
Isaac’s mother, Jackie Allen, said the family does not plan on signing with an agent until he’s 100% certain he’ll declare for the draft. “When it comes down to the decision, it’s going to be me and him and no one else,” she said.
Isaac hails from Naples, Fla., and played his first two seasons of high school basketball at Barron Collier High School. He played his next two years at International School of Broward in Hollywood, Fla., where he led the state in scoring by averaging 29.5 points per game as a senior. Isaac went to IMG for a fifth year of high school and signed with Florida State in November. He chose the Seminoles over Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Louisville and LSU.
Isaac possesses a fluid shot, elite athleticism and enough length to be able to eventually guard small forwards in the NBA. With the 2017 draft considered stronger than the 2016 draft, it could behoove Isaac to develop while playing professionally instead of collegiately. The new rule, passed in January, by the NBA, NCAA and National Association of Basketball Coaches allows him to test the waters, which means the decision will ultimately be up to him.
“I’m all about competing and being myself and just playing,” Isaac said. “I’m grateful. It’s an opportunity. You don’t want to pass up opportunities. You just want to explore them.”