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NBA Daily: Free Agent Watch – Centers

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent Watch by discussing the robust class of centers set to hit the market.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA is returning incredibly soon, but it definitely won’t be the same – at least not initially.

While most aspects of the game will hopefully return to normal as soon as next season – and other fun surprises like the return of Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley to the Brooklyn Nets (the latter of whom is still in negotiations) will bring some unexpected joy to an otherwise nerve-wracking situation –  the long-term financial implications of COVID-19 are very real. Immediately, players will sign lesser deals due to an assumedly smaller salary cap and teams with multiple max contracts on their books will struggle to surround their star players with the support they need to compete.

With that being said, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best free agents at each position with the new and unique realities facing NBA teams in mind. Today we turn out attention to the men in the middle. The center position has changed dramatically since the 1990s, when having an elite big man was practically a necessity. But the definition of “elite” has changed drastically between that era and this one. Historically, big men hunkered down in the post — they were burly and physical, blocked shots and grabbed rebounds. What they did not do was stretch the floor, handle the ball or defend guards like many at the position do today.

So let’s dive into the best centers available in free agency.

Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $25,595,7500

Gasol will be an unrestricted free agent following this season. And, from the surface, his prospects wouldn’t seem great; Gasol missed considerable time in 2019-20, playing in only 36 games due to a hamstring injury, which resulted in career lows in scoring, rebounds and blocks per game.

That said, there’s still some room for optimism – and it’s squarely rooted in his weight.

Gasol has slimmed down quite a bit since COVID-19 forced the NBA to shut down in mid-March. Returning lighter and more fit should allow him to move more seamlessly with the team on the court and further leverage his athleticism. It should also enable him to stay on the floor for longer stretches, another positive as Gasol’s presence on the court has often been positive for the Raptors; of Toronto’s six lineups that logged 100 or more minutes, Gasol is in all three that are at least +10 and didn’t play at all in the other three (which were -4.1, -10 and +3.1, respectively).

What’s more, Gasol’s a great passer, an excellent defender (he allowed the tenth fewest points per touch last season) and his three-point shooting has continued to improve dramatically (he shot 40.2% on 3.5 three-point attempts in 2019-20 – second among centers in the entire league behind only Karl-Anthony Towns).

Gasol isn’t the modern and mobile “point center,” but adding bits and pieces of that style to his game has surely made him a valuable asset on the open market, even at the age of 35 and despite the lackluster regular season. He’ll have eight games plus the playoffs to prove that he’s healthy and ready to contribute — if Gasol can step back up, he should be in line for a nice payday.

Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers – Unrestricted – $27,093,018

Whiteside was meant to be a stop-gap for the Trail Blazers. Portland’s plan was always to bide their time until Jusuf Nurkic was able to return from a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula.

But the 31-year-old put forth such an impressive 2019-20 campaign that, while it’s highly unlikely the team recants their dedication to Nurkic, Whiteside has almost certainly secured himself a major deal for next season.

Just look at Whiteside’s 2019-20 output so far; he improved essentially each month, which culminated in 19.6 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5 blocks per contest across five games in March. Further, Whiteside connected on 57.1% of his three-point attempts – even if he only launched seven all year. If Whiteside can convert threes at that rate – even at such a limited volume – he remains a threat who defenders must cover all the way to the three-point line.

To put Whiteside’s season in context, he secured a career high in points per game, led the league in blocks per game (3.1) and is the second-leading rebounder in the entire NBA. Not bad, right? It may not come from Portland, but Whiteside would certainly seem to be in line for a raise, and a big one at that. And, given his age, don’t be surprised to see him jump at potentially his last chance to cash in big.

Dwight Howard, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000

Howard signed a one-year, non-guaranteed deal with the Lakers last summer. Expectations were relatively low, especially considering he was a last-minute signing; Howard was signed in August after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a knee injury.

But expectations and reality are not always aligned. Despite his age — Howard turned 34 last December — and the lack of actual playtime to go around with Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee soaking up most of the time at the five, Howard managed an impressive bounce-back season. In 62 games, Howard averaged 7.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while hitting 73.2 percent of his shots and playing strong defense in just over 19 minutes per game.

Per-36, those numbers look even better: 14.1 points, 13,8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per-36 minutes.

It could be tough for the Lakers to re-sign Howard, as they have about $75 million in guaranteed contracts next year before inking Davis to a massive new deal. That said, and while Howard will be competing with veterans like DeMarcus Cousins for a roster spot, he’s built a strong case for himself – especially if he’s willing to take another discount and continue to accept more of a reserve role.

Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers – Player Option — $28,751,774

The Cavaliers traded for Drummond for pennies on the dollar. Less than that, even.

In exchange for Brandon Knight, John Henson and a future second-round pick, the Cavaliers netted a two-time All-Star and the NBA’s leading rebounder in each of the last three seasons. It’s not like there was a major downtick in his play this season, either; in 2019-20, Drummond averaged 17.7 points and 15.3 rebounds per game.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses in Cleveland.

Drummond’s situation with the Cavaliers appears to be pretty open-and-shut. He’s been quoted as saying that he will exercise his $28.7 million player option, adding nearly $30 million in salary to Cleveland’s 2020-21 salary cap. But, just because Drummond said it doesn’t make it a guarantee. The Cavaliers could attempt to negotiate a long-term deal, bringing down their 2020-21 cap hit and guaranteeing Drummond more total dollars to appease him.

But there are a few questions that must be addressed before offering Drummond anything beyond next season. Firstly, does Cleveland believe that he’s versatile enough to play center in the modern NBA? Drummond shot just 28.6% on three-point attempts this season and he’s a sub-50% career free-throw shooter. Do those deficiencies outweigh Drummond’s strong contributions elsewhere (i.e. his scoring, rebounding and defense)?

The second question for Cleveland has more to do with his timeline rather than his play. Do the Cavaliers want to further invest in players on a different timeline to that of much of their young core (Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Dante Exum, Kevin Porter Jr., etc.)? Drummond is set to turn 27 later this year and, while surrounding youth with a veteran leader is definitely the right move, Cleveland already has two of those veteran personalities in the locker room in Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson.

That said, while Love is signed through 2022-23, Thompson — a similar player to Drummond — is set to hit unrestricted free agency at the end of the season.

Cleveland’s strategy as of this past February’s trade deadline didn’t appear entirely cohesive — they resisted trading Thompson (and could now lose him for nothing) only to add Drummond to the fold. And, going forward, it looks as if they have two options: either overwhelm their roster with mismatched talent and try to let it work itself out, or they can surrender Thompson now or Drummond next season. We’ll know which direction they prefer very soon.

DeMarcus Cousins, Los Angeles Lakers – Unrestricted – $3,500,000

Last we checked, Cousins was working his way back from a torn ACL suffered just prior to the start of the 2019-20 season. Cousins’ stats were very good, but not quite great; the former Golden State Warrior averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game in 30 games last season, still hobbled in his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon. Before that, Cousins was averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, shooting an impressive 35.4% on three-point attempts while bullying opponents at the rim (63.1%).

So, is a team willing to gamble on Cousins bouncing back to that form? It will have to wait until next season, as Cousins has stated his intent to sit out the NBA’s restart in Orlando, but the answer is probably yes, but for the right price.

Cousins was (and probably still is) an uber-talented player. But, like Howard this season, he may have to take a backseat-type deal before he can truly bounce back and earn his next big payday.

Whatever Cousins does is, ultimately, up to him, but, whether with the Lakers or another squad, it would seem wise for Cousins to ride the wave next season with a squad that could go the distance. Rather than rush himself back and risk another potential injury, Cousins could slowly work his way back and show teams that he can still get it done at a high level before hitting the market next offseason looking to cash in.

The return to basketball is inevitable. Of course, not everyone is happy with it, but that won’t stop teams from taking advantage of the remaining games in order to scout players and absorb new information. There are opportunities for players to secure future contracts, while other players will probably play their way into retirement and or out of the league. The 2020 free agent period will probably be the most chaotic version of itself, ever, and, while it may be a little rough for the front offices, it’ll be all the more fun for us to cover and watch.

And it’ll all be here in just a few short months.

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NBA Daily: Luke Walton’s Uncertain Future

Could this be it for Luke Walton in Sacramento? David Yapkowitz examines.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s one big question surrounding the Sacramento Kings this season: what, exactly, will become of head coach Luke Walton? Walton, in the second year of a four-year deal he signed back in 2019, has often headlined the group of coaches that are thought most likely to be let go next.

Brought in by the previous regime, Sacramento’s situation has changed considerably since they brought in Walton. Former general manager Vlade Divac has since stepped down and been replaced with Monte McNair. And, often, new management will look to build their team, coaching staff included, in their own mold — that’s nothing really against the current personnel, just that different voices sometimes have different visions and want to construct a team within that vision.

If the team plays well, the new management team may be inclined to ride it out with the current staff. In a somewhat recent example, when Masai Ujiri first took over in the Toronto Raptors front office, the Raptors started surging in the standings and Ujiri held on to Dwane Casey for a while before ultimately replacing him with Nick Nurse. Casey had been hired by former executive Bryan Colangelo.

The Kings are in an interesting scenario in that, despite being a perennial bottom-dweller, expectations have existed for the team for over a decade now, the main expectation being that they would eventually improve beyond that bottom-feeder status. Now, that expectation may be more warranted than ever, as Sacramento has some seriously talented pieces in place, including franchise cornerstone De’Aaron Fox and Rookie of the Year contender Tyrese Haliburton.

In fact, just a few weeks ago, the Kings looked like they might actually be turning things around. On a four-game win streak, with wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics, they looked like a different team.

Since then, unfortunately, they’ve reverted to the Kings of old. Now, they’re on an eight-game losing streak, their first such skid since 2019.

There are plenty of good teams in the Western Conference and, because of that, at least a couple of them are going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time. Of course, it can be hard to fault teams that show consistent effort and improvement. But that just hasn’t been the Kings, for quite some time now.

The main area of concern for the Kings where they haven’t shown real improvement is on the defensive end. They were already among the bottom half of the league on that end before their most recent skid, while it’s been significantly worse during their last eight games.

It’s always a possibility to bring in a defensive-minded assistant to help with that end, much like Sacramento tried to do on offense this past offseason. To spark the team on that end of the court, the Kings added Alvin Gentry to Walton’s staff and for the most part, it’s worked out: Sacramento is 12th in the league in scoring, up from 22nd last season. They’re also shooting better from three-point range while playing at a quicker pace.

But in order to win in this league, you need to do it on both ends. And that’s something the Kings haven’t shown the ability to do.

Sacramento is allowing 119.6 points per game, dead last in the NBA. Their defensive rating of 118.7 is also last. And, at this point, simply adding an assistant might not do the trick; at this point, it might just be easier (and more effective) for management to simply cut ties with Walton and set up a new staff under a new head coach.

Walton’s popularity and potential as a head coach first piqued during the 2015-16 season with the Golden State Warriors. When he stepped in for Steve Kerr, who took leave from the team to recover from back surgery, Walton guided the team to a 24-0 start and a 39-4 record upon Kerr’s return. While the Warriors were in their second of what would be five-straight runs to the NBA Finals and had a strong foundation already in place, Walton’s involvement in the feat can’t be discounted, while it opened the league’s eyes as to his potential as a head coach.

But later, during Walton’s years as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, the team showed slight, if minimal improvement each year at best. In fact, those Lakers were similar to these Kings in that they were a young team with no real experience just trying to get better. And, obviously, it’s much easier to look good when you already have an established unit.

Coaching in the NBA is a tough and often thankless job. When things go right, they get little credit. When they go wrong, the blame lies almost squarely on their head. As with players, sometimes a coaching situation just isn’t the right fit for either party; maybe this Kings’ roster just isn’t built to maximize Walton’s system.

That said, in this particular case, it would probably be best for the Kings to ride the current situation out. Sacramento has shown some improvement from last season and Walton deserves some credit for that. He’s shown constant faith and trust in his rookie, Haliburton, while he has Fox playing at a near All-Star level and Richaun Holmes looking like one of the NBA’s best in the painted area (and an absolute steal, given his contract).

Going forward, it’s worth rolling the dice and seeing if they can’t end this skid and get back to their strong play earlier in the year. Further, it might not be that great an idea to make such a radical structural change halfway through the season when your team might still have a realistic shot at the postseason.

That said, should the team continue to struggle, then it would be wise to revisit the matter in the offseason. If they do, it wouldn’t be much of a reach if McNair decides that two years is enough and that he wants to bring in a head coach of his own choosing.

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NBA Daily: Where Does John Collins Really Fit?

Since the Atlanta Hawks and John Collins were unable to agree to an extension in the offseason, rumors have swirled about the 23-year old big and his future. Ariel Pacheco breaks down which teams might be the best fit for Collins should he and Atlanta decide to part ways.

Ariel Pacheco

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John Collins has been the subject of trade rumors all season long. The Atlanta Hawks are reportedly seeking a “lottery level pick” in return for the talented big man. With Collins set to be a restricted free agent this upcoming offseason, any team that trades for him must also be willing to either offer an extension that will likely be north of $100 million or lose him for nothing.

This cuts down the list of potential suitors to just a handful of teams. These teams will have to be willing to part with draft capital and/or young players. Here’s a look at where John Collins could fit in. 

San Antonio Spurs

Few teams are as good of a fit for Collins as San Antonio. The Spurs are off to a surprising start at 16-11 and the sixth seed in the Western Conference. That said, they are in desperate need of a floor-spacing big with some upside and Collins is just that. With the 35-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge set to be a free agent and his play dropping off, Collins can slide right in as the team’s big of the future.

The Spurs have multiple young guys and their draft picks. The question is how much would they be willing to part with. There are a couple of iterations that the Spurs could send out to Atlanta. A trade centered around Derrick White and a protected pick could be something that interests the Hawks. They might also be interested in a deal that includes Lonnie Walker, salary filler and a protected pick. Again, it depends on how far San Antonio would be interested in going in their pursuit of Collins.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have quietly been a competitive team this season, possibly more so than they want to be. With a young star they certainly want to build around in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collins would represent an intriguing co-star to lead the franchise into the future. At the very least, the fit between the two would be beautiful to watch. Oklahoma City has a number of young, high-upside players they like in Lugentz Dort, Isaiah Roby, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon. Adding in Collins to compliment them would significantly accelerate their rebuild.

The Thunder also happen to have a war chest stuffed with draft capital. They have 16 first-round picks and 13 second-round picks through the 2027 draft. It’ll be impossible for them to select a player with every one of those picks and, while they are unlikely to just offer them recklessly, using some of that capital to swing a trade for a young talent with All-Star potential in John Collins would be a great use of resources. 

Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, Cleveland just added Jarrett Allen. But that shouldn’t preclude them from a potential move for Collins.

The Cavaliers have struggled after a nice start to the season. While they seem to have settled on a core centered around Allen, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, they are in need of a frontcourt scorer who can space the floor for their guards. Collins might prove the perfect fit, as he can play alongside Allen and should prove a threat with both Sextan and Garland in the pick-and-roll. And, given his upside, the Cavaliers’ future would shine even brighter.

The difficulty here is finding a deal that works for both sides. If a deal were to happen it would more than likely have to be a three-team deal. The Cavaliers just aren’t a natural trading partner with the Hawks. A third team would be able to give both sides what they are looking for. Cleveland could also bet on Collins not signing an extension with a new team; in that event, they would be better off waiting until free-agency to offer him a deal. 

Sacramento Kings

Sacramento struck gold in this past year’s draft with Tyrese Haliburton. Alongside De’Aaron Fox, the Kings have their backcourt of the future firmly in place. Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield have both been rumored to be unhappy in Sacramento, involving one or both of them in a trade for Collins could give the Kings a lot more upside and add some frontcourt scoring. 

This is another situation where, given their personnel, the Kings and Hawks aren’t ideal trade partners and would probably need to involve a third team. Sacramento has shown some growth this season and an upgrade in talent could help make their playoff aspirations more attainable. The Kings own all of their first-rounders and should look to be aggressive in improving their roster.

Boston Celtics

Pursuing a Collins deal is unlikely for Boston, who has shown to be very reluctant in parting with future assets in recent seasons. Still, Collins would add a pick-and-roll threat Boston just doesn’t have. The Celtics would then be able to build around an extremely strong core of Collins, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Celtics would have to pay Collins in the offseason, however, making them even more unlikely to swing a deal for Collins. Already paying Kemba Walker, Tatum and Brown over $100 million each, Boston would almost certainly have to and the same to Collins, further restricting their ability to fill out a roster that, beyond those three, has been lacking this season. On paper they are a great fit, but there are just too many extenuating factors that make a deal unlikely.

Plenty of other teams could (and should) put their hat in the Collins-ring but are also unlikely to do so due to various factors. The Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Denver Nuggets could all swing a deal for the big man, but they either have younger guys at his position or wouldn’t be willing to pay him.

Collins is a talented 23-year-old big man with All-Star potential. It’s not often someone of his caliber at such a young age is available on the trade market and teams should be aggressive in their pursuit. If Collins doesn’t get traded, teams will have a chance to sign him to an offer sheet in restricted free agency. He will likely command a $100 million deal, with any team that trades for him essentially ponying up for the first shot to pay him. 

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NBA Daily: Should Orlando Sell?

Injuries have once again foiled Orlando’s plans for success. Chad Smith assesses the situation and details why it is time for the Magic to finally blow it up and fully embrace the youth movement.

Chad Smith

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As the All-Star break approaches, the Orlando Magic find themselves in an all-too-familiar position. They are the basketball equivalent of a treadmill. Hell-bent on moving full steam ahead, they continue to squeeze out wins but, in the end, they are going nowhere.

There are a variety of reasons why Orlando continues to dwell in the quicksand, injuries being chief among them. There is plenty of young talent on the roster, but they just can’t seem to stay on the floor. Rookie guard Cole Anthony and star Forward Aaron Gordon are both dealing with injuries and will not return until after the All-Star break. It goes much deeper than just this season though.

Jonathan Isaac is in his fourth year but has played just 106 total games. He is expected to miss the entire season after appearing in only 34 games last year. Worse, just when it seemed as though Markelle Fultz had turned his career around, he was lost for the year with a knee injury just eight games into this season.

While injuries may be out of their control, Orlando hasn’t done much to help themselves, control the things they can control, either.

Drafting is a tricky puzzle, for sure, as there are always busts and sleepers that are only be realized years later. But, while Orlando has had the luxury of picking near the top every summer, they have yet to nail the star they have longed for (and desperately need). In back-to-back years they had the sixth-overall pick, which they used on Isaac and Mohamed Bamba. In 2015 they selected Mario Hezonja fifth-overall. None of their second-round picks in that span have contributed to this team, either.

The Magic have seemingly always lived in mediocrity. Despite having one of the easiest schedules in the league, they currently sit 12th in the Eastern Conference. While he obviously hasn’t had the group at full strength, head coach Steve Clifford’s team ranks near the bottom in virtually every statistical category. Player development is something that must be taken into consideration, which puts Orlando in a position where they must make a major decision.

Should they continue with their current nucleus and try to build on another lottery selection next season as they return to health, or sell off their talented veteran players now and embrace a full-on rebuild?

Orlando’s biggest asset is obviously Nikola Vucevic, the All-Star center in the midst of a career year. In year two of a four-year contract worth $100 million, Vucevic’s salary actually declines by $2 million each year. And, at the age of 30, Vucevic will no longer be in his prime once the Magic are relevant again.

Taking advantage of desperate teams that need help at the center position, like the Boston Celtics or Golden State Warriors, could net them multiple first-round picks and or a young player in return. The free agent class for next season is lukewarm at best, so teams may decide to explore trading to acquire top-tier talent. If Orlando puts him on the trade block, their phones will be ringing off the hook all the way up to the March 25 deadline.

Should the Magic decide to move their best player, it would open the window of opportunity for Bamba. The seven-footer is still under contract for one more season so he could be easily dealt if the franchise decides to hold on to Vucevic. Several suitors have already been knocking on Orlando’s door about his availability. With Bamba’s name already in trade rumors, it could signal that the team is headed in a different direction.

Gordon’s name is one that has already been in trade rumors even before the season tipped off. The fourth-overall draft pick in 2014 doesn’t have the same explosion and athleticism that he once possessed, but he is still just 25-years-old and would be a valuable piece for any team.

Despite his regression, Gordon’s value remains high for contending teams looking to add a piece that they believe will put them over the top. The return for Orlando will not be a huge bounty, but moving on from Gordon could be wise as he has one year remaining on his contract at just $16.4 million, which should be very enticing to interested teams.

After suffering 15 losses in 19 games, Orlando has now won three in a row and four out of their last five. While none of those victories came against top-level teams, it is a sign that perhaps the Magic aren’t ready to just cut their losses in the midst of an injury-filled season.

Orlando does have two Disable Player Exceptions, worth $6.1 million and $3.7 million, respectively. This would allow them to add another player but they are just $2.8 million below the luxury tax. That being said, there isn’t a player available that is going to turn Orlando’s season around. They will face the Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks, and Atlanta Hawks before the break.

After missing the postseason six years in a row, Orlando has made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. The problem is they haven’t done much after getting there. In those two years, they have only won a total of two games; both first-round exits. The year-to-year improvement just hasn’t been there, as Orlando seems to have hit their ceiling with this core.

In the best-case scenario, the Magic would have a healthy Isaac and Fultz to pair with their two talented big men. They would have another lottery pick to add to their pool of young talent. Anthony avoiding the sophomore slump and the continued development of Bamba and Dwayne Bacon would be of major help for the future of this franchise as well.

Odds are, even with all of these coming to fruition, however, the team wouldn’t amount to a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.

Evan Fournier is another name that could be on the move. The veteran sharpshooter will be a free agent this summer and would like to play for a contender, per Zach Harper of The Athletic. The Magic aren’t keen on the idea of re-signing the veteran scorer, as they will have to pay Isaac and Fultz. Finding Fournier’s new home this season could benefit both sides in the long run.

Orlando’s organizational philosophy has always been to compete for the playoffs, with all indications showing that will not change this season. But, with the trade deadline a month away, there is still a chance they could reverse course on that. Every organization starts a new season with the goal of reaching the postseason. But, at some point, the future must take precedence, even if it means suffering in the short-term for the long-term gain.

Orlando’s best route to long-term success would be to cash in on their talented veterans now. Investing in the future and going young is a blueprint that many teams have committed to. The Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets and New Orleans Pelicans are all oozing with young talent and have bright futures. The Magic have the opportunity to add either another top draft pick or two or some young established players to their promising young core and they should seize it.

Sneaking into the playoffs and getting smacked in the first round once again is not going to improve this team in the long run. There is no added value in playing four or five additional games after the regular season. This franchise must see the big picture and position itself to succeed using a different path.

The goal for Orlando should not be making the playoffs again. Their goal should be to finally escape NBA purgatory. The plan should be to embrace the youth movement and accumulate some assets, while they still can.

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