Isaiah Joe brings shooting prowess and a humble stance to his role with the Thunder

Isaiah Joe brings shooting prowess and a humble stance to his role with the Thunder

Even back when the shooting guard was a star, he worked like he wasn’t. That’s made it easier to shine in a supporting part for the Thunder.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Jan 5, 2024, 9:00am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Jan 5, 2024, 9:00am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — The green light figuratively flicked on soon after Isaiah Joe crossed half court. 

Back at Northside High School in Fort Smith, Arkansas, 40 feet was fair game. Some nights he could go even deeper. 

Nobody was going to tell Joe no. 

“When you can shoot the way Zay can shoot,” said Jaylin Williams, Joe’s teammate now with the Thunder and then with the Northside Grizzlies, “you can shoot from a step behind half court.” 

It’s hard to imagine now. 

Not the shooting prowess; that hasn’t gone anywhere. But the freedom. The freelancing. The license to launch from anywhere at any time. 

It seems so unlike Joe, a perfect system fit now in his second season with the Thunder. 

His game has come a long way since Northside, and even since Arkansas, where in two collegiate seasons Joe said he still had “the ultimate green light” to fire from long distance.  

In OKC, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard knows his role and picks his spots. He comes in off the bench and plays off stars Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chet Holmgren and Jalen Williams, feasts on the 3-pointers their offensive gravity helps create.

“The word that I always go back to is awareness, and it’s different for every player,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “I think for every Isaiah who seems to calibrate very quickly, learn very quickly the role that he has to play in order to be successful in the NBA, there’s probably five guys that don’t do that as quickly and don’t do that as well.”

What’s Joe’s secret? How did he go from a high-volume shooter at lower levels to a quieter contributor in the NBA?

It helps that even when he was a star, he never saw himself that way. 

“I was never a top prospect, top player, never (highly) ranked,” Joe said. “So for me, it was just about grinding day in and day out. Keeping my head down.”

Joe was the No. 206 high school prospect in America according to 247Sports, and that site’s composite ranking — which takes into account the top recruiting services in the country — had him 168th. 

Joe ranked outside the top 30 shooting guards in the high school class of 2018, behind prep hoop luminaries RJ Barrett (No. 1) and Romeo Langford (No. 2); current teammates Lu Dort (No. 5) and Aaron Wiggins (No. 9); and a whole slew of guys whose names you maybe never heard. 

After Joe’s two seasons at Arkansas, Philadelphia selected him with the 49th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft — the 19th pick of the second round. 

None of that foretold stardom. 

And Joe never expected it. 

He arrived in the league wired to work. Because that’s what he’d always done. 

Even when he had the freedom to shoot at lower levels, Joe saw himself as a guy who was a little too short, a little too skinny; a guy who’d never be given anything in basketball.  

He’d have to earn it. 

That’s why at Northside, he worked out with a strength trainer before school, then got up some shots between weights and classes. After school there was practice, then more shooting. And depending on the night and Joe’s mood and his trainer’s availability, they might get together again for some after hours work. 

“When I got to Northside, he was a senior,” Jaylin Williams said. “And that was really my first time realizing what it takes to be what I wanted to be in life.”

Back then, Joe dreamed of playing in the NBA. But he’d finished his freshman season at Arkansas before he started to see it as a real possibility. 

He played sparingly for two seasons with the Sixers before they now-famously waived him, allowing the Thunder to pick him up as a free agent. 

He’s been a consistent contributor in OKC, where this season he’s shooting a career-best 42% from 3-point range. 

“Everybody in the NBA has had the green light once upon a time,” Joe said. “And so whenever you’re on a team with a whole bunch of guys where everybody is capable, you have to be able to play within the system.”

He’s proven an expert at fitting in it. 

The shooting is the biggest reason why. 

Joe has taken 174 3-pointers this season, and 158 are what the NBA classifies as “open” (when the closest defender is four to six feet away) or “wide open” (six-plus feet away). 

That’s in part because the Thunder’s stars draw so much defensive attention — 30 of Joe’s 73 3-pointers this season have come after passes from Gilgeous-Alexander — but also because Joe has a knack for finding that space on the floor. 

It’s a skill, Daigneault said, to relocate for an open shot off an offensive rebound, or to know where behind the 3-point line to be when the ball penetrates the paint. 

Joe has those skills, and they help him maximize minimal opportunities. 

As a sophomore at Arkansas, Joe attempted 13.8 field-goal attempts per game. In 202 career NBA games, he’s taken 14 or more shots five times. 

But Joe’s fit runs deeper than that. 

He’s a willing and able passer, comfortable swinging the ball when the shot isn’t there. He’s a solid defender on and off the ball. He’s blocked 11 shots this season, two in help defense against Lakers big man Anthony Davis. 

Joe is listed at 6-4 and 165 pounds, and “it’s hard to be really impactful defender in the NBA at that size,” Daigneault said. But Joe has found a way. Daigneault recalled a play last season when Joe was switched onto the Nuggets’ Aaron Gordon and was “chesting the hell out of” the 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward. 

Daigneault called Joe’s defense “reckless, almost, but in a fearless and physical way.” 

“You know what you’re gonna get from (Joe),” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And he’s tougher than I thought he was when he first got here. Tough kid. Sticks his nose in every fight. Love playing with him.”

Joe takes pride in that surprise, in proving he’s more than a shooter. 

It’s part of an approach he honed in his younger days, when he fixated on building what he calls “an aggressive, go-get-it mentality.”

They didn’t give Joe the green light to shoot 40-footers in high school. 

He earned it. The same way he’s earning a role now. 

“I feel like if you already have the ability and the want to work, you don’t have to learn it,” Joe said. “So coming here, I already had the work ethic, and it was just about continuing to grow from that. Not having to learn how to work hard, already having that ingrained in me, that’s what helped me.”

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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