Isaiah Joe was seen as an instant Band-Aid for the Sixers’ three-point woes, a 6-foot-4 gauze pad with lights-out range. His high school coach, Eric Burnett, called Joe the best shooter in the NBA draft.
The 21-year-old shot 37.8% from deep in his college career while averaging 16.9 points as a sophomore, jacking up a ridiculous 548 3-point attempts in two years at Arkansas. Perhaps Burnett’s personal scouting report inspired the Philadelphia 76ers to make Joe the 49th overall pick in November. The franchise has forever been trying to surround Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid with skilled young shooters.
Now they have a guy who trapped himself in the gym at Northside High School during his formative years. His work ethic is “off the charts,” according to Burnett. Joe led Northside to back-to-back state finals while earning Arkansas Player of the Year honors, all due to an insane commitment to shooting.
“When we got done with practice, going two hours every day, he would stay in the gym and get 1,500 to 2,000 shots in,” Burnett told Heavy.com. “I think people see him shooting the basketball and they think that, ‘Well, he just woke up and started shooting the basketball.’ No, that kid has worked on his craft for a long time and that’s why he’s able to shoot the basketball like that.”
Burnett detailed that manic dedication by telling a story of how Joe once texted him on Thanksgiving and asked to get in the gym. The true story is eerily reminiscent of a 16-year-old Kobe Bryant getting locked in the old St. Joseph’s Fieldhouse on July Fourth. It happened more than once at Northside, too.
“I’m sitting at the house having Thanksgiving dinner and I would get a text from him, ‘Coach can I get in the gym?’ and I would go open up the gym for him,” Burnett said. “On Christmas, he would text me to go let him in the gym. He worked all the time. Weekends, Saturdays, Sundays … I bought a couple of ball machines and he would get on them and just wear them out.”
Seventh-Grader Schooling Varsity Guys
Burnett first met the skinny kid from Fort Smith as a seventh-grader when Joe was looking to get extra work in during football season. Immediately, the impressed coach could see how silky smooth his jumper was. And so did the guys on the varsity basketball team who asked Joe to “lead them” in shooting drills.
“He’s just an unbelievable young man and I knew he was going to be pretty special,” said Burnett who has coached Northside for 10 years. “As a seventh or eighth-grader, I had him work out with the high school kids, and sometimes I’d be like, ‘OK I need one person to knock this 3 down for me and we don’t have to run [sprints], you get to go home — and they would say, ‘Isaiah, you shoot the ball for us’ and these were high school kids telling Isaiah to shoot the ball. And he would get up there and knock it down.”
The Sixers sent Joe down to the G-League on February 28 to undergo a short stint with the Delaware Blue Coats. He’s back with the big club now, only after averaging 17.4 points in five games while shooting 32.7% from deep. More impressive than Joe’s offensive numbers was his defense. Sixers coach Doc Rivers has been raving about his defensive intensity for weeks, something he took pride in at Northside.
“We would always put him on the best players his junior year,” Burnett said. “Of course his senior year I asked him to do more when it came to the team offense so I would take him off the best player, that way I could have his production on offense. But as a junior, we would put him on the best offensive player, and Isaiah, you know, he loves the challenge, and he’s real smart, high IQ, and so he would do a great job.”
The other thing that has always stood out is his leadership, more by example than voice. He’s not a yeller on the court.
“He understands about being a team and being together,” Burnett said. “I recall his senior year, after every ball game, he would always get the guys together and go bowling. And me and him would have a deal where maybe there was a kid who couldn’t pay for something — and I would tell Isaiah to let me know and I would take care of it. But I liked that he was a leader and he got that team together.”
Doc Rivers Impressed by Joe’s Work Ethic
Joe’s brief exit to the G-League wasn’t a demotion. Rivers wanted him to go down there and gain some valuable experience as the Blue Coats made an improbable playoff run, falling one win short of the championship. He got up 55 3-point attempts in five games, including a 7-for-15 shooting night on March 8 when he scored 28 points.
He was recalled to the Sixers but hasn’t seen any game action since March 14. For now, Furkan Korkmaz remains the Sixers’ main shooting option off the bench. That doesn’t mean that Rivers has lost any faith in Joe or his ability to shoot. Like Burnett, Rivers has been wowed by Joe’s insane work ethic.
“He’s developing. He works his butt off,” Rivers said on Wednesday. “Isaiah’s skills, he knows what he is. Which is, he can really shoot the ball, he can shoot the ball off the catch, he’s working on his dribble. He’s already an NBA defender, which is nice for a shooter that’s really said and he already is. He’s gonna be a good player.”
Better Person Off the Basketball Court
Sometimes what a player does off the court gets lost in the stat sheet. Sure, Joe is only averaging 4.3 points in 11.8 minutes per game for the Sixers. Remember, he’s still a rookie who is growing into his role as well as his new life as an NBA player.
Burnett agrees with the approach Rivers has taken in grooming his former star pupil. He’s “gotta learn the terminology” and earn those extra minutes over time. Burnett told a fascinating anecdote about Joe’s maturity off the basketball court where he once guided a strategic planning committee for the school’s new superintendent. The large district — two high schools, four junior highs, 21 elementary schools — needed to raise money so Joe met with local business owners and the mayor.
“He would go in and talk to business people at Fort Smith whether they had money or not,” Burnett said. “All of them would come back to me and say, ‘Coach, I cannot believe that young man is 18 years old.’ He’s so mature in the way he speaks to you, you would think he’s 27, 28 years old — just a sharp young man and that’s why the community embraced him.”
His hometown of Fort Smith has also embraced the Sixers. Take a road trip to Arkansas and you’ll be sure to spot quite a few No. 7 jerseys walking the streets.
“I’m 100% a Sixers fan,” Burnett said. “The whole town is.”
And there is another Joe to keep an eye on. Isaiah’s younger brother, Jacob Joe, is a senior at Northside trying to carve out his own legacy. Burnett credits their parents, Derrick and Nicole, for raising two great young men.
“Really good people,” Burnett said. “You can see and tell, and understand why Isaiah and Jacob are the way they are.”