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Isaac grows into role of an elite basketball prospect

BRADENTON -- Michael Flemming used to like bringing his Amateur Athletic Union team to see Kevin Berkowitz, a foot and ankle doctor in Miami, where his players could have their growth plates analyzed. He wanted to get an idea of what his Florida United players could grow to become and he wanted them to know, too.

Jonathan Isaac, however, was a particularly intriguing case. He could tell from some of Isaac's mannerisms that the 6-foot-4 wing was still growing, even though Isaac's father is 6-3.

Isaac didn't know what he expected, but it wasn't what Berkowitz told him. One day, he said to Isaac, he'd wear a size 17 shoe. One day he'd be 7 feet tall.

"I didn't believe them," he said.

He has grown about six inches since his appointment with Berkowitz, who died last year, and sprouted into one of the most coveted high school players in the country. Now 6-10, for IMG Academy forward is the top ranked player in Florida and ranked No. 12 nationally, according to 247sports' Class of 2016 composite rankings.

His November signing with Florida State is partly a relic of a time before he was considered one the best players in the country, and he is almost unanimously viewed as the Seminoles' next one-and-done star. Nearly every time he gets in front of a national crowd he opens more eyes, and Friday was his final opportunity before he departs for Tallahassee -- the nationally televised Jordan Brand Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where he scored eight points and grabbed six rebounds.

"It feels surreal," Isaac said.

Affirmation for Isaac came in the form of eight minutes as a sophomore against North Port, which that season was one of the few teams Naples Barron Collier and its precocious, raw reserve small forward could beat up. Isaac was 6 feet, 4 inches at the time and coming off the bench for a team that only won three more games than it lost. He averaged a measly 4.8 points per game.

But for one quarter against the Bobcats, Isaac was immaculate, pouring in 15 points on the way to a 38-point win.

"Those are the moments that kind of keep you going," Isaac said. "I thought basketball was going to be over for me, but it's the flashes like that which make you want to keep playing and getting better."

Isaac played his first high school season on Barron Collier's freshman team, and he begged Collier head coach Joe Rader to let him play junior varsity as a sophomore. He was rail thin and just a few years into his basketball career. Varsity basketball was overwhelming, and he cracked double-figures only three times.

"I wasn't really confident in myself, especially playing on varsity when I was a sophomore," Isaac said. "That was so scary."

He was typically the tallest player on the floor during games in southwest Florida, and he was always the tallest for the Cougars. So it was unusual for Isaac to spend most of his time on the perimeter.

Rader viewed him as a future star, and he knew Isaac's future was on the wing. Collier ran a five-out system and in flashes Isaac showed his potential.

"We always knew he was going to be a fantastic player," Rader said. "We just didn't know that he was going to be a fantastic 6-10 player."

The following summer, Isaac's future changed. He went across the state to play for Florida United after years of playing in lower-level United States Specialty Sports Association leagues in Naples and Estero. He returned with a new outlook.

"Coach, I've got great news," Rader remembers Isaac telling him. "I had my X-rays done for my foot and the doctor said my growth plates are wide open, that I'm going to end up being between 6-11 and 7-1."

"Oh my God, Jonathan," Rader said. "That is great news."

By any metric, Isaac is a late bloomer. He missed nearly all of his junior season at Hollywood International School of Broward with an injury, and he didn't start gathering Division I interest until the ensuing summer. Even when the offers started coming, they were mostly from smaller programs like Arkansas State or East Carolina.

Isaac didn't start playing basketball until he was in middle school and only then because he was one of the tallest kids in his grade. Perimeter skills, he said, came naturally to him. He handled the ball like a wing and shot like a guard. Entering his junior season, Isaac couldn't dunk.

Two years later, he's one of the nation's most buzzed-about prospects, and he spent last weekend making a strong impression at the Nike Hoop Summit.

"It goes without saying that he's very talented," FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton told reporters after Isaac reaffirmed his commitment to Florida State in February. "We're looking forward to having him."

Isaac left Naples following his sophomore season to play for Flemming and ISB. He was a mystery to the head coach, who had never heard of Isaac when the then 6-5 wing showed up to his first Florida Elite practice. But he quickly saw the potential, too.

Isaac complained about growing pains and moved like someone who was uncomfortable with his still-growing body. More importantly, the coach who worked with NBA guard Brandon Knight saw a similar personality.

"He was not much of a player at that point, but you could always tell that he had greatness in him," Flemming said. "He came in, and he worked hard and he never took no for answer, except for his pushups."

After a trip to Berkowitz confirmed some of Flemming's initial suspicions, he was ready to transform Isaac into Broward County's next rising star.

But nagging injuries and a broken forearm offset miniature growth spurts during his junior season. He remained basically unknown until the then 6-8 wing wreaked havoc at the 2014 Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions in Georgia. Then he found success against the nation's best in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League.

One night during the summer after Isaac's junior year, Flemming took an off-day to check out Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons' Maverick Rowan. In the bathroom, he ran into Louisville head coach Rick Pitino and the two started chatting. Pitino told him he was there watching Rowan, who now plays at North Carolina State.

"The best player in the county is Jonathan Isaac," Flemming told him. "He's the best player in the state."

As Flemming recalls, Pitino asked for a reminder as he left the bathroom.

"What's that kid's name again?" Pitino asked.

Flemming slowed down to enunciate his syllables and make sure Pitino knew the name.

"Jon-a-than I-saac."

It isn't very often a top basketball recruit is also one of the younger students in his grade. When a talent is identified early enough, a prospect sometimes repeats a grade to gain a physical advantage. Isaac and his family hadn't considered that idea until he began playing with Florida United. When potential sneaks up like this, everything happens quickly.

With a year to spare, Isaac came to Bradenton for a year with IMG's post-graduate team to refine the edges of his game and physique.

"He's still learning how to play," head coach John Mahoney said.

The Ascenders leaned into Isaac's strengths and tried to smooth out weaknesses. They've emphasized consistency on his jump shot and playing the post on both ends of the floor.

Since he came to IMG in the spring, offers have come from virtually every major-conference school. Just about everyone acknowledges the Seminoles got a steal by moving quickly when Isaac still had plenty more room to grow.

Mahoney thinks about the next few years and flashes a knowing smirk.

"I think he's got one more spurt in him."

David Wilson, Herald sports writer, can be contacted at 941-745-7057 or on Twitter @DBWilson2

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