Isaiah Joe took a calculated risk in leaping to the NBA this season instead of staying at Arkansas for his junior year. If he was still in college, he could be pouring in nearly 20 points a game against Arkansas’ early-season SEC opponents. His steady leadership and deadly shooting likely would have meant the difference in what was a close loss at Tennessee.
Instead, after some back and forth, Joe bolted to the NBA. He was picked lower than he would have hoped (No. 49 overall), but the payoff was he landed in Philadelphia — an Eastern Conference contender where he can learn from a championship-caliber head coach in Doc Rivers.
The first few weeks played out like many would have expected for a second-round rookie behind established veterans like Danny Green, Ben Simmons and Seth Curry. Joe barely saw the floor. ESPN, in fact, relegated him to fifth-string on its depth chart.
But in this season, more than any other season, depth can be wiped out in the blink of a mucus swab. Daily COVID-19 testing for the NBA players means whole groups of players can be held out for upcoming games with little advance notice.
That’s exactly what happened late last week when positive tests whittled the 76ers’ roster down to only seven players.
Isaiah Joe proved he was ready for the moment, making three three-pointers in the first quarter of his first NBA start.
Although Joe shot shakily down the stretch of that first game, a loss to Denver, he still saw plenty of action in the following three games.
“His confidence is just getting better and better,” Ben Simmons said of Joe in a press conference. “He’s becoming more confident in taking certain shots. He’s figuring out the game, we’re helping him with certain things defensively and then offensively. He’s learning quick and when you have guys who want to learn and get better, it is a lot easier to coach them and talk to them about certain things. He’s made a huge jump within the past few games.”
In those games, he racked up 18, 13 and 12 points respectively, while shooting a combined 12 of 25 from three-point range. More importantly, he’s also proven he has all-around game, especially down the stretch defending Miami shooters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.
Joe even delivered a massive rejection of Herro, the same former Kentucky star he went toe-to-toe with two years ago as a Razorback freshman.
“Everybody knows I can shoot, but I do take a lot of pride on the defensive end,” Joe said afterward. “I think somebody of my stature has to knuckle down on defense and lock in on guys like a Duncan Robinson who can get his shot off with a minimal amount of space. I really took on that challenge and he’s a great player. I learn from guarding players like him and I’m looking forward to future challenges.”
Isaiah Joe’s hard work this past offseason in gaining strength and quickness, coupled with continued dedication to the craft, is paying dividends for 9-4 Philadelphia. Currently, the 76ers’ NBA Championship odds sit as the fifth-highest in the league but they may be gaining momentum.
On Thursday, hot take factory Charles Barkley said he thinks Philadelphia is the favorite in the Eastern Conference, even with Brooklyn going all-in on its recent acquisition of superstar James Harden.
“The Sixers are going to be my favorite in the Eastern Conference.”— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) January 15, 2021
Chuck is all-in on Philly. pic.twitter.com/Bkubx86E3w
Isaiah Joe’s minutes will probably dip once all of Philadelphia’s starters and top reserves return. But his recent performances show he’s more than ready to step up when needed.
While he will never get to experience a deep run in March Madness with his beloved Hogs, a trip to the NBA Finals as a rookie wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize.
For more out Joe’s transition to the pros, see my latest post: Isaiah Joe Shuts Up Rotowire Staff Haters with Breakout Performances