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Rookie Of The Year Watch – 11/1/17

Shane Rhodes looks at the top early candidates for Rookie of the Year.

Shane Rhodes

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The 2017-18 NBA season is just over two weeks young, but that doesn’t mean it’s too early to start looking at the end-of-season awards. Today, Basketball Insiders looks at the Rookie of the Year Award and, while this list will likely change over the course of the season, the race looks like an exciting one. With one of the more hyped up rookie classes in recent memory all vying for the trophy, who has the upper hand at the start of the season?

6. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

As the seventh overall pick in last June’s draft, Lauri Markkanen was met with a hefty amount of skepticism while the Chicago Bulls were bombarded with plenty of criticisms. Markkanen, however, has been quite the surprise for a Bulls team that is in desperate need of talent. Although the Bulls sit at 1-4 through their first five games, Markkanen has flashed the high-upside offensive ability that he so often displayed during his time at the University of Arizona, averaging 15.6 points and 9.6 rebounds with a field-goal percentage of 43.1 percent. Markkanen has looked more than comfortable from behind the arc as well, canning threes at 41.7 percent clip on over seven attempts per game.

With guard Zach LaVine likely on the mend until December, Markkanen, who currently holds a usage rate of 20.4 percent, should see a healthy number of touches as the most talented offensive option on the roster. However, there are plenty of areas Markkanen can improve his game, namely as a playmaker and defender. Through five games, Markkanen has totaled just two assists along with one steal and three blocks for ugly per game averages of 0.4, 0.2 and 0.6, respectively. These deficiencies have existed in his game since before his time with the Wildcats, but if Markkanen can manage to step up in even one of those areas he could very well see a rise in these rankings.

5. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Similar to Markkanen, John Collins has been a revelation for the Atlanta Hawks since his selection at 19th overall last June. Through seven games, Collins has averaged just 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while playing just a shade over 20 minutes per contest. Collins, however, has a dominating stat line of 20.4 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per-36-minutes and, as the Hawks inevitably feed him more minutes, his per game numbers should see a nice boost. If he manages to play at least 60 games and sustain that per-36 stat line, Collins would join a list made up of just seven other players, including Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal and Elgin Baylor, to do so in their rookie season. While it may be a stretch to expect that type of production from Collins across an entire season, it is encouraging nonetheless.

Something Collins needs to improve is his range; he has yet to take a shot from beyond the arc across 141 minutes this season. Collins has never been one for three-point shooting, attempting just one across two seasons at Wake Forrest, and typically finds himself within three feet of the basket with over 50 percent of his shots coming in this area. Developing any sort of outside game would be a major boon for the Hawks, while adding another wrinkle to Collins’ game would make it much harder for opposing defenses to gameplan for him down the line. Until that development, however, Collins likely won’t be able to make a major play for Rookie of the Year.

4. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

While the Sacramento Kings may sit at 1-6, De’Aaron Fox’s play has been as good as advertised. Sitting behind George Hill, Fox has put up averages of 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and five assists across 26.7 minutes per game. Per-36-minutes, Fox has produced an encouraging line of 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.8 assists. His speed has been explosive and exciting to watch while his shooting stroke looks to be improved from his Kentucky days (small sample size alert). The extremely athletic Fox can be seen consistently hustling up and down the floor and, while his steal numbers are low now — Fox has just four steals on the season — they are certain to rise as he becomes more comfortable in his role after nabbing 53 steals across 36 games in his lone season at Kentucky. Fox has even been praised by another Kentucky alum, John Wall, who he was often compared to during the leadup to the draft. After years of searching, the Kings have seemingly found a keeper at the point guard position.

In order to push the others for Rookie of the Year, Fox will need to continue his progressions as a shooter. While his early free throw and three-point numbers have looked promising, he needs to sustain those numbers in order to remain a force on the offensive end. An improvement on his current -10.4 net rating and an eventual insertion into the Kings starting lineup would certainly help his case for the award as well.

3. Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers

As much as people may despise his father, it is hard to hate on the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball. Ball plays the game with a certain intensity and his team-first mentality is constantly on display via his passing. Through seven games, he is averaging 10 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.1 steals per game. He boasts an assist percentage of 29.2 percent and is constantly trying to initiate offense as soon as he touches the ball, whether that be near the basket or on the opposite end of the floor. Ball’s defense hasn’t been bad either, posting a defensive rating of 102 points per 100 possessions.

Where Ball really struggles is his offensive game, outside his passing ability of course. Ball has been absolutely abysmal shooting the ball to start his career, registering a field goal percentage of 33.3, a three-point percentage of 28.3 and a free throw percentage of 55.6. While part of that is adjusting to NBA defenders, part of it lies in Ball’s wonky shooting motion. Until he adjusts, Ball will be forever flustered as a shooter and a scorer. Another problem Ball faces is the fact that he hasn’t really made the team better overall. While the “Lonzo Effect” was supposed to be a net positive for the Lakers, it has, in fact, been a net negative. When Ball has been on the court this season, the Lakers have a net rating of -11.7 but, when he is on the bench, that number jumps to a +14.7. While Ball is clearly a gifted passer, he has plenty of other kinks to work out of his game as the season goes along.

2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum was not supposed to be here, not yet. Coming into the NBA as a 19-year-old after the Boston Celtics drafted him third overall in June, Tatum was expected to mostly ride the pine early in the season, chipping in minutes here and there a la teammate Jaylen Brown a year ago. However, injuries have forced Tatum into the spotlight and he has performed more than admirably in the place of All-Star Gordon Hayward. On the year, Tatum boasts a stat line of 14 points, seven rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.1 blocks per game on 33.1 minutes per game with an offensive rating of 117. Tatum has played a crucial role in the Celtics turnaround after their early slump following Hayward’s injury and his presence on the glass is one that Boston desperately needed last season. His defense has been better than expected as well, going up against the likes of LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo yet still managing a defensive rating of 98.

Tatum still has his flaws, however. As the focal point of the offense at Duke a season ago, Tatum often found himself in ISO situations, going one-on-one against a defender. That ISO mentality can still be seen in Tatum’s offensive game and, when playing on a team with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and, eventually, Hayward, that won’t fly. At other times, Tatum just does not take the open shot, making an extra unneeded pass or passing up an open three to move into two-point range. Tatum has shot well from three so far, hitting 10 of 20 attempts from downtown, but he’ll need to correct these mistakes as the season goes along as the Celtics make their inevitable Eastern Conference postseason run. That being said, Tatum would likely be the front-runner for Rookie of the Year if not for one point-forward.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

Is this really a surprise? Ben Simmons has absolutely dominated for the Philadelphia 76ers and is the clear cut best rookie thus far. Averaging 35 minutes per contest, Simmons holds a ridiculous stat line of 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. Simmons would be the first rookie to hold those averages since Oscar Robinson did so in 1960. His court vision is impeccable and, playing a majority of his minutes at the point guard position, his size and the physicality of his game can create a mismatch on almost any given play.

Simmons has his problems for sure. He is still not a great shooter; Simmons has taken just four three-pointers on the season and converted none of them. His overall field goal percentage looks nice — Simmons is shooting at a 53 percent clip — but that number is inflated by all of the shots he takes from the inside. While he still needs to become more comfortable shooting the ball outside of the paint, Simmons has a firm grip on the Rookie of the Year award and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

The 2017-18 rookie class looks like a special one, one that should make for a more than exciting race for Rookie of the Year. The season is still young, so expect all of these rookies, as well as others not on this list, to make a play for the top spot as the season goes along and they adjust, learn and improve their overall game.

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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