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Poised To Breakout: Atlantic Division

Ben Nadeau identifies the six breakout candidates to keep an eye on in the Atlantic Division during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Ben Nadeau

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The biggest free agents have signed, summer leagues have concluded and the NBA landscape has suddenly found itself in the doldrums of August. With far too much time before training camps kick off, Basketball Insiders has been taking a closer look at the divisional hierarchy each week.

First, we tackled the rankings. Then, the best new deals from each division got some shine. Now, next in the series, we’ll take a look at those poised to breakout in 2017-18. In the Atlantic Division, much of the mystery over who will lead the division is gone – hello, Gordon Hayward – but there’s still plenty to be unearthed up in the Northeast. This time, the spotlight is on the players, coaches and executives that could improve their league-wide standing due to their potential impact within the division.

Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics

The hype train for sophomore Jaylen Brown has well and fully left the station. After fearlessly taking on LeBron James last year, Brown played a pivotal role for a Boston Celtics team that stole away the No. 1 seed from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brown’s explosive first step and ability to catch fire from deep makes him a candidate to breakout in 2017-18, particularly so after his perceived growth this summer.

During his two games in the Utah Summer League, Brown averaged 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds and later remarked that he was using the competitions to prove that he’s ready to contribute when the wins and losses start counting for real this fall. Even better, Brown has proven to be an athletically gifted game-changer even when his jumper isn’t falling. From win-clinching blocks to strong rebounding efforts, there are plenty of ways Brown can pitch in while the team’s All-Stars handle the scoring load.

Of course, there are minutes to be had in Boston’s rotation following the departure of Avery Bradley, and Brown may already be the best-suited option to handle them. Still, Brown is just 20 years old and incredibly raw, all things considered, but the flashes of brilliance are absolutely already shining through. If he can capitalize on the available opportunities while playing alongside Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, Brown may just force himself into the starting lineup on a permanent basis.

D’Angelo Russell – Brooklyn Nets

This one seems like an absolute no-brainer as the Brooklyn Nets’ summer move for D’Angelo Russell was a win for all parties involved. Russell gets a fresh start with a franchise that figures to remain on the outside of the playoff hunt in 2017-18, even in the weak Eastern Conference. Without the bright California spotlight on him, Russell should have plenty of chances to bloom with the Nets. He’ll share the backcourt with Jeremy Lin and the dynamic, interchangeable pair will give opposing teams trouble when they’re connecting from three-point land.

Even with his alleged growing pains and off-the-court issues, Russell still averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists on 40.5 percent shooting during his sophomore campaign. Perhaps Nets general manager Sean Marks was compelled to trade away franchise centerpiece Brook Lopez for Russell simply to stop the guard from lighting up his team every time they played the Lakers. Over four career games against the Nets, Russell has tallied 24.5 points per contest – including the now-famous I’ve-got-ice-in-my-veins effort of 39 points on 8-for-12 from deep late in his rookie season.

With low expectations and the team built around him, Russell should have his finest season yet in Brooklyn.

Willy Hernangomez – New York Knicks

In the wake of Kristaps Porzingis’ sophomore year emergence and the debacle that can only be described as Joakim Noah’s first season in New York, Willy Hernangomez, by and large, flew under the radar. Hernangomez stepped into the starting lineup following Noah’s injury in early February and impressed during his limited time on the court. Notching 8.2 points and seven rebounds in just 18.4 minutes per contest, his second half growth led to an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection.

While everybody waits to see how the Carmelo Anthony situation resolves itself, the Knicks should be pleased with the 1-2 punch in their frontcourt. Assuming that Hernangomez has permanently leapfrogged Noah, even if the latter is finally healthy in 2017-18, the Spanish center will almost certainly bust out this season. Per 36 minutes, the 6-foot-11 big man pulled down 13.6 rebounds to go along with a solid 16 points on a superb 52.9 percent from the floor. With New York’s dearth of talent down low outside of the budding Latvian superstar, Hernangomez should easily build on his unexpected rookie season successes.

Brett Brown – Philadelphia 76ers

Since becoming the Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach in 2013, Brett Brown’s all-time record is less than stellar at 75-253 – good for a winning percentage of just 22.9. Yet, it would be impossible to pin many of those losses on the savvy Brown as he lived through the roughest years of former general manager Sam Hinkie’s much-maligned process. Between the constant stream of injuries and the borderline intentional tanking, Brown hasn’t gotten a truly fair shake at this head coaching gig quite yet. As one of the league’s best motivators, Brown, health permitting, has a massive opportunity to cash in on the 76ers’ patience.

Claiming an injury-free season for the 76ers at this point would be bold, but if that dynamic young core – starring Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid – can stay healthy, then Brown’s image will skyrocket. The wheels fell off in 2016-17 when Embiid’s season ended early, but it was Brown that had molded a pretty average roster into a darkhorse playoff contender, albeit however brief. Now that Brown has plenty of fancy toys to experiment with at every position, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the 76ers’ leader on the shortlist for Coach of the Year next season. While the raw, athletic talent of this Philadelphia core is undoubtedly electric, they’re still going to need a wise tactician to put it all together and get these youngsters into positions they can succeed in.

Through three seasons, Brown has already done so much with so little. Let’s see what he can do with a strong, healthy roster in 2017-18.

Allen Crabbe – Brooklyn Nets

One year after their initial pursuit, the Nets got their man. After handing over an offer sheet worth $75 million to Allen Crabbe last summer, Brooklyn acquired the sharpshooter for next-to-nothing in late July. In 2016-17, the Nets tossed up the fourth-most three-point attempts per game at 31.6, but, sadly, converted on just 33.8 percent of them – good for the 26th-worst mark in the entire league. So, despite his bloated contract, Crabbe represents a near perfect fit for the growing Nets.

Never quite able to get out from under the superstar shadows of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Crabbe has the opportunity to shine in the Nets’ run-and-gun system. He’ll likely start in Brooklyn at small forward, alongside the aforementioned Lin and Russell, bringing his 44.4 percent rate from three-point range with him. This Nets team clearly loves to shoot the ball from deep and they desperately needed a deadeye shooter like Crabbe to make opposing defenses pay. Thanks to the sheer volume of attempts he’ll grab under head coach Kenny Atkinson, that immaculate second-best three-point percentage (Kyle Korver, 45) will likely fall in 2017-18, but Crabbe could quickly become one of the Nets’ top contributors.

Scott Perry – New York Knicks

For now, a total meltdown in New York has been quelled thanks to the hiring of new general manager Scott Perry. To say the least, it’s been a hectic summer for the Knicks despite being largely uninvolved in the proceedings. Former executive Phil Jackson nearly dealt away Porzingis during the NBA Draft and once he was dismissed, the remainder of the front office opted to give Tim Hardaway Jr. an untouchable $71 million to go with the albatross deals given to both Noah and Courtney Lee last summer.

After successful stints with the Detroit Pistons, Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic, Perry is a fantastic candidate to clean up the mess at Madison Square Garden. Honestly, Perry has a chance to start off extremely well with the Knickerbocker-diehards by just playing things safe. Holding onto Porzingis is an excellent first step, but if he can get relatively fair value for Anthony, Perry will be hailed in New York almost immediately.

If front offices have learned anything lately, it may be that there are no shortcuts to success in this current NBA landscape. Undoubtedly, there’s plenty of work to be done, but time is on the Knicks’ side. So, if Perry doesn’t look for a get-rich-quick bailout plan in New York, he’s almost guaranteed to break out, especially in comparison to the former job holder.

Although the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors will likely remain atop of the Atlantic Division, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of compelling storylines to look out for in 2017-18. From bloated contracts to new opportunities, Brown, Russell, Hernangomez and Crabbe can all make this upcoming season their best respective full effort yet. After years of what seemed like limitless losing, Brown finally gets to prove his worth as an NBA head coach, while Perry enters a critical period in the Knicks’ franchise timeline.

On and off the court, this group of six players, coaches and executives are ready to break out in a big way in the Atlantic Division during the 2017-18 NBA season.

Ben Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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David Fizdale Building Bonds With Kristaps Porzingis and Knicks Young Guards

David Fizdale figured out that winning in the NBA requires deep connections between coach and player.

Moke Hamilton

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It barely took David Fizdale a week to take the New York Knicks to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Next time they’re there, though, hopefully they’ll be playing.

In case you missed it, the newly minted head coach for Team Porzingis took Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay and Damyean Dotson to Boston to take in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Celtics and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The stated purpose of the trip, according to Fizdale, was to give his young guards some exposure to the intensity of playoff basketball. Unfortunately, for the Knicks, it’s the closest they’ve been to the playoffs since Carmelo Anthony famously had his fate-sealing dunk thrown back in his face by Roy Hibbert.

Fortunately for the Knicks, though, the field trip itself is indicative of the team having a head coach in place who understands one of the secrets to being successful in the NBA. In this business, personal relationships and bonds will go almost as far toward building a winning program and culture as talent alone.

Even without saying so directly, you can bet that Fizdale’s taking the trio of young Knicks to Boston was him putting actions to words that, at the very least, mean he’s consistent.

At the very most, though, they mean he’s sincere.

Part of what earned Fizdale the Knicks job in the first place was his ability to impress Steve Mills and Scott Perry with his candor and humility, especially as it relates to his famous falling out with Marc Gasol. Fizdale owned the fact that he himself did not try to be enough of a counselor and diffusor of the conflict between the two and sold Mills and Perry on the idea that he has grown from the experience.

Today, Fizdale told them, he understands that the responsibility of the head coach goes beyond drawing up plays.

As soon as he got the opportunity, Fizdale went out of his way to connect with his trio of young guards and reached out to Kristaps Porzingis to let him know that he was excited to coach him and looking forward to visiting him in Spain and Latvia.

Whether you believe that Porzingis is more an invention of the New York hype machine or truly the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki, the simple fact is that he is the only thing that the Knicks have going for them right now. What makes his situation a tad bit uncomfortable, however, is the fact that he wasn’t a fan of Phil Jackson and remains close to Carmelo Anthony.

Publicly, Porzingis has been lukewarm toward the Knicks organization and hasn’t committed to signing a rookie extension at first opportunity. Usually, a player coming off of his rookie contract is eager to cash in at his earliest opportunity and, historically, hasn’t often re-signed with his incumbent team after turning down said extension.

At the very least, things between Porzingis—who has let it be known that winning right now is his priority—and the Knicks seem to be at an impasse. And prior to his dismissal, Jeff Hornacek suggested that the franchise was leaning toward not attempting to re-sign Porzingis to an extension this summer and instead allowing him to become a restricted free agent next summer.

The strategy makes a lot of sense for the Knicks. In theory, they could creatively manipulate the salary cap to take advantage of the cap space that they could maintain by tendering Porzingis a one-year qualifying offer next summer and using their cap space to sign an unrestricted free agent prior to re-signing Porzingis. In the alternative, signing Porzingis to an extension this summer would eliminate that possibility.

Again, not signing Porzingis to the extension this summer makes a lot of sense from a team building perspective, but it does also increase the possibility that Porzingis could end up leaving the team in July 2020. If he truly is unhappy with the franchise—and there are many that believe that he is—forgoing the extension, accepting the one-year qualifying offer next summer and then leaving as an unrestricted free agent in 2020 is exactly the course that he would have to take to secure his freedom sooner.

That, obviously, is a nightmare scenario for the Knicks.

Fizdale, though, seems to have been awoken to the possibility.

Since his introductory press conference, Fizdale has extolled the virtues of the Latvian big man. Fizdale called Porzingis “the future of the NBA” and let it be known that he is planning on making multiple trips to Europe this summer to check up on Porzingis and his rehabilitation. He called Porzingis an MVP-caliber player and, apparently, has all the belief in the world that he can help the Knicks return to prominence in the Eastern Conference.

This past week, Porzingis confirmed that he and Fizdale had spoken. Porzingis said the two had a “great conversation” and that he was “excited” to begin the next chapter.

Although it was the first time Porzingis made any public comments about Fizdale, the tweet may have actually said more about Fizdale than it did about Kristaps.

At the most basic level, a unionized workforce is generally an interaction between “employees” and “management,” which can be difficult to navigate as a member of either class.

In professional sports, a head coach is the nexus between the front office—whom most players look at as managers who are divorced from the day-to-day workings of the locker room—and the player personnel.

Put more simply, the coach is someone who is expected to wear two hats. He’s more a member of management than he is a player. He needs to have the trust and ear of his front office, assist in making important player personnel decisions and, simultaneously, convince the members of the team to trust him, listen to him and play for him.

From a relationship standpoint, walking that tightrope isn’t easy to do. Most former players who become head coaches have an inside track when it comes to endearing themselves to their locker rooms, but the difficult dynamic and serving as a confidant of both the front office and the locker room is something that many coaches have difficulty managing.

In a perfect world, we’d like to believe that the only thing that matters is the result. Once upon a time, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson were able to take the Phoenix Suns to levels the franchise hadn’t seen, despite their being polar opposites in terms of personality and values. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal had much greater success despite their lack of personal affinity for one another.

Today, however, we’ve seen the opposite. With the superstar of today having learned that he can control his own future and wield power and influence over his franchise, it has become apparent that they’ll want to find themselves playing with players they like and for coaches they have bonds with.

Fizdale learned that the hard way.

And now, with the Knicks, his attempt to become a personable leader of men will begin anew.

It started with a simple field trip and continued by picking up the phone to make a long distance call to Latvia.

At least to this point, Fizdale has traveled the extra mile. 

When he sat across the table from Perry and Mills, he told them that he understood it necessary to form personal relationships and bonds with his players and how that can go a long way toward building a winning culture.

Sure, the Knicks have a long journey ahead of them, but even with the tiniest of actions, Fizdale has already begun charting the course.

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Wendell Carter Jr. — The Future at the Five

Duke’s Wendell Carter could be the future of the center position in the NBA, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The future of the NBA center resides in the 2018 NBA Draft. Only it may not be who you think.

The incoming class has more than a few standouts bigs: Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba and others all have flashed dominance throughout their time at school. Ayton has the body to thrive in the NBA, Bagley is an uber-athlete who is constantly working and Bamba has the skills to be an elite defender at the next level.

However, as versatility grows in prominence and importance throughout the modern NBA, there may be no one more prepared than Wendell Carter Jr.

While he hasn’t seen the same hype that envelops the aforementioned trio, Carter, standing at 6-foot-10, has the tools to be one of the next great NBA big men. By virtue of playing with Bagley, Carter’s stat line — 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and two assists — doesn’t exactly jump off the page. However, while some excelled in one specific area, Carter did a little bit of everything during his lone season at Duke.

“I knew what I could do, I knew how I could affect the game without necessarily scoring the ball,” Carter told Basketball Insiders. “So I did those things. I did those things exceptionally and I just found a way to stand out from others without having to put the ball in the basket.”

Carter, with his combination of size and high basketball IQ, has what it takes to be a multifaceted threat on the offensive side of the ball. Not only can he post or face up on the block and back down his opponents, but Carter has soft hands, can finish near the basket with both his left and right with finesse and has a multitude of moves he can turn to should he find trouble. He is also smart enough to recognize and know where he should be on the floor and when, whether he be cutting to the basket, setting the screen for another ball handler, or otherwise.

An exceptional shooter for his size, Carter posted an effective field goal percentage of 59.1 percent while netting 41.3 percent of his shots from three and 73.8 percent from the free throw line. And while he wasn’t given many opportunities to show it, Carter can be a force in the pick-and-roll as well, both as a pick-and-pop shooter or as a big man rolling to the basket.

In a non-scoring capacity, Carter is a capable passer as well. His high IQ allows for quick reads when he has the ball and, more often than not, he makes the right pass accurately and on time. While he averaged just two assists during the season, his passing ability will be a more than helpful at the next level and, with higher skilled shooters, Carter could net a few assists every game. Carter did well boxing out his man and going for the rebound as well. He averaged 2.9 offensive rebounds per game 13.5 total rebounds per 40 minutes.

Again, because of Bagley and other talented scorers, Carter took on more of a secondary role offensively. He believes, however, that it was a boon for his NBA prospects and prepared him for the next level.

“I think it did wonders for me,” Carter said. “I think it showed that I’m able to play with good players and still maintain my own.”

Defensively, Carter provides switchability as well as versatility at the next level. Playing either the power forward or center positions, he has both the size to bang down low with the bigs as well as the quickness to keep up and defend when switched on to smaller guards.

With a wingspan stretching 7 feet 4.5 inches, Carter has the length to protect the rim but is light enough on his feet to close out on and contest shooters around the perimeter. He rotates well and will rarely give up on plays. He will continuously fight for position if players attack him in the post. His hands are always active as well, with good timing on both blocks and steals. Across 37 games with the Blue Devils, Carter posted a defensive rating of 92.8.

While he is not a prospect without faults, Carter is more prepared than most for the NBA. With some seasoning at the next level, he could be a force to go up against as a player who can attack you, both offensively and defensively, from multiple different angles.

Carter has already met with multiple teams, both in and outside the lottery, including the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers, Charlotte Hornets and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Regardless of where he lands, however, Carter knows he’ll be ready.

“You’re not just playing the game, you’re playing for a business,” Carter said. “And I’m ready for it.”

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NBA Daily: With No Regrets, Hamidou Diallo Is Primed For Next Step

Hamidou Diallo spoke at the NBA Draft Combine about his decision to return to school, what he learned and the advice he’s given to his teammates.

Ben Nadeau

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When potential first-rounders return to collegiate basketball, it’s typically about raising their stock. Every year, somebody goes back to school and, more often than not, that player goes higher in the draft the following year. It’s a nice story, sure, but it doesn’t always end up that way. Not everybody goes back to school and dominates. Not everybody goes from a fringe first-rounder to a no-brainer lottery pick.

In some instances — even despite receiving real, tangible on-court experience — they fall even lower.

For Hamidou Diallo, that’s exactly what happened — still, he’s not sweating it at all.

“Everybody’s different — let me just start off by saying that,” Diallo said at the NBA Draft Combine last week. “Everybody’s a different player, everybody has different needs. Everybody has a different family base. Everybody’s put in different situations. I’m just happy I was put in a situation I could make either or decision — go back to school or come out.

“I feel like I made the right decision and if I had to do it again, I’m doing the same thing — I’m going back to school and playing a year at Kentucky and trying to make it work.”

Coming out of high school, Diallo was ranked as the No. 11 prospect back in the class of 2017, a five-star athlete sought after by not just Kentucky, but many of Division-I’s annual royalty — Connecticut, Syracuse, Kansas, Arizona and Indiana — as well. During his senior season at Putnam Science Academy, Diallo averaged 19 points, six rebounds and three assists per game and his ability to play above the rim rightfully anointed him as a can’t-miss teenager.

Shortly after enrolling early at Kentucky in January, Diallo redshirted that spring semester in order to practice and lift with the Wildcats without sacrificing potential NBA stock or losing a year of eligibility. The plan was to learn the playbook, adjust to life at the collegiate level and prepare for the 2017-18 season. Of course, that decision did leave an interesting wrinkle in the mix. If he wanted to, Diallo could’ve gone pro without ever playing a game for Kentucky — and he almost did.

Diallo could only watch as De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo took Kentucky all the way to the Elite Eight — but that didn’t stop the high-flyer from joining the three future lottery picks at the NBA Draft Combine last spring. Among other impressive physical measurements, Diallo took down a combine-best 44.5-inch vertical leap and left many franchises wondering if the then-18-year-old could be an intriguing first-round option..

Just minutes before the pre-set midnight deadline for collegiate returners, Diallo took his name out of the draft pool. While Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that Diallo didn’t receive a guarantee high enough to keep him in the draft — it still ultimately made sense to stick his original plan.

So, he went back to Kentucky.

Diallo would start all 37 games for the Wildcats this season, averaging 10 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 24.8 minutes per game. Admittedly, it was not the breakout year most had anticipated from Diallo, but he played an important role for a Kentucky squad that won 26 contests before reaching the Sweet 16 as a No. 5 seed. But according to Diallo — now one year stronger, wiser and better prepared — his on-court action wasn’t the only big step he’s taken in this extensive process.

“I learned how to face adversity — I was put in points throughout the whole year where I had to face adversity, where I had to see what type of person I am,” Diallo said. “So I learned how to fight myself, and the biggest thing Coach Cal told me was how to fight myself. How to conquer yourself — that was the quote we heard a lot, each and every day.

“Conquer yourself — that’s one thing I learned how to do pretty well. When things aren’t going my way, I learned how to play through it and I learned how to play for the team — it was a great year for me.”

Still, presumably, Diallo will be drafted at a lower position than he would have a year ago — for better or for worse. In the grand scheme of things, Diallo looks like he has no regrets about trading a little money for a full season of collegiate basketball, gaining experiences and routines that will ideally shape a long, successful professional career. Currently, Diallo is projected all over the map — from No. 42 in Basketball Insiders’ 60-pick mock draft to No. 55 in NBADraft.net’s most recent edition.

Even with his draft fate soundly undecided at this time, Diallo still offered support for fellow prospective draftee Anfernee Simons, a 6-foot-3 guard that spent the year training at IMG Academy instead of in Division-I.

“100%, I support him, I’m all for him,” Diallo said. “Coming out, some guys are just not into college as much. Some guys want to go on to be a pro, it’s been his dream ever since he was young. He sees himself as one of the best players in the draft and for him to make the jump.

“I’m happy for him, maybe it becomes a trend, maybe it doesn’t — but for a guy to be chasing a dream, I can’t be nothing but happy for him.”

Diallo himself signed with an agent in April, which means he can’t return to Kentucky for another season — there’s no turning back now. Once again, Diallo measured well at the NBA Draft Combine, but he still declined to participate in the 5-on-5 portion, opting to leave some mystery in the tank ahead of his private workouts. Although Diallo could’ve certainly used the boost from a stellar scrimmage performance in Chicago, he’s always stuck to his plan — no reason to change his mind now.

Wherever Diallo ends up being selected in June, he’ll know that it’s just the next step in a particularly unusual road to the NBA. And whoever drafts Diallo will gain a hyper-athletic 19-year-old with all the physical tools to become a tenacious defender and a talented scorer. Detractors may point to his below average rate from three-point range last season (33.8 percent), but he also notched plenty of impressive individual outings along the way — like his 22-point, eight-rebound, one-steal and two-block effort in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.

For those that continue to sleep on Diallo, he’ll be as ready as ever to prove them wrong for the indefinite future — now, he just needs his chance. But when Diallo was asked about any advice he had imparted on P.J. Washington and Jarred Vanderbilt, two of Kentucky’s water-testing youngsters, he offered up something that’s clearly driven him since he went back to school.

“For P.J. and Jarred, I went through the process last year, I mean, just make the right decision for you and your family,” Diallo said. “Nobody can tell you what’s right, you’re going to be the one that’s gonna have to live it. So, if you feel like it’s right for you to leave, then so be it. If you feel like it’s right for you to go back to school, then go back to school.

“But don’t let anyone dictate that decision for you, just have you and your family sit down and make the right decision.”

At long last, that career-changing decision is about to finally pay off for Hamidou Diallo.

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