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Six Things To Know: NBA’s Southwest Division

Six of the underrated story lines to pay attention to in the Southwest Division this season.

John Zitzler



The cream of the Southwest Division is the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. They will enter the season with expectations of another title run as the Tim Duncan era nears conclusion. The Spurs will be tested all year long in what figures to be a very tightly contested division. Chandler Parsons relocated from one Southwest division contender in the Rockets, to another in Dallas, signing with a veteran Mavericks team. The Rockets brought in Trevor Ariza, who is coming off a fantastic season with the Wizards, to replace the departed Parsons. Both the Rockets and Mavericks anticipate being right back in the thick of the playoff hunt. Parsons wasn’t the only player in the Southwest division to find a new home in the division; Omer Asik went from the Rockets to the Pelicans and Vince Carter bolted from Dallas and signed with the Grizzlies. The addition of Carter should help bolster a sometimes lackluster offensive attack in Memphis. The Grizzlies are coming off a 50-win season, and like the Rockets and Mavs, will be another tough opponent in the division.

Those changes are a few of the more discussed topics throughout the Southwest Division, now let’s take a look six other talking points inside the division that you should be aware of before the season kicks off.

Dallas will open the season with Jameer Nelson as their starting point guard

The Mavericks have three capable veteran point guards on their roster in Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton and Devin Harris. All three have been starters during their time in the NBA and have proven that they can succeed in that role. The talent level is relatively similar among each player, with no one really jumping off the page as that much better than the next. Unless Coach Rick Carlisle changes his tune in the next few weeks it looks like Nelson will get the first crack at the starting gig. Carlisle shared what he hopes to see from his new point guard earlier this week.

“Get comfortable and give us the right balance of penetration, scoring off pick-and-rolls, scoring off spot-ups and he’s got to give us tough defense,” Carlisle told Tim MacMahon of “He’s very capable of all those things.”

One of the challenges for Nelson will be adjusting to a new system. Having another veteran point guard who is familiar with the schemes Coach Carlisle runs, in Devin Harris, should make his transition from Orlando a bit easier. Nelson will be under considerably more pressure than he has been in the past few years playing on a rebuilding Magic team. His ability to pick up the offense quickly will be crucial in the deep Western Conference, where the Mavs just can’t afford to dig themselves an early season hole.

Donatas Motiejunas will be counted on off the Rockets’ bench

The 24 year old Lithuanian will have the chance to be important piece for the Rockets off the bench this season. With Omer Asik off to New Orleans, the Rockets lost their best big men off the bench. This season they will rely on Motiejunas to take the next step. He will need to be a consistent contributor and key member of the second unit. In his first two years with the Rockets Motiejunas has been limited to smaller role, playing, on average, just 14.1 minutes per game. The combination of his inexperience and the talent in front of him made it difficult for Motiejunas to break into the Rockets’ regular rotation.

One aspect of his game that will be counted on is his shooting. He has struggled to knock the three ball with regularity and was only a 26.9 percent shooter from distance in his first two NBA seasons. Despite his lack of success from deep thus far Motiejunas is a more than capable shooter from deep. He excelled playing for the Rockets’ summer league team this past July. Motiejunas averaged 16.8 points per game while shooting a very impressive 59.3 percent from the field in eight games. The Rockets will need Motiejunas build off his solid summer league; his shooting and ability to score will be important off the bench

Five players are battling for two starting wing spots in Memphis

The Grizzlies have a nice mix of wing players with a variety of skills. Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen are both elite defenders but really struggle to score ball. Courtney Lee, Quincy Pondexter and Vince Carter, on the other hand, are players that excel on the offensive end but aren’t as gifted defenders as Allen and Prince. The challenge for coach Dave Joerger will be to find the right combination between the five players at his disposal, that together, can make an impact on both ends of the floor. This preseason Joerger has started Lee, Pondexter, Allen and Prince on separate occasions to get a feel of who works best together. The Grizzlies will rely on the rest of their starting line-up, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to lead the team, but will need production from the their wings.

Prince still feels that he can play extended minutes.

“I just have to be more of an offensive threat on the floor,” Prince said to Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I can’t be an offensive threat just spacing out and waiting for jump shots. That’s not really what I’ve done in this league before. I just want to be more creative.”

If Joerger and the Grizzlies can get consistent play from his two starting wings it will go a long way in helping the Grizzlies get back to the playoffs. It will be interesting to see which players step up and take command of those roles as the season progresses.

Points in the paint will be tough to come by against the Pelicans

The Pelicans were able to acquire one of the more underrated centers in the league this summer when they added Omer Asik. Asik comes to New Orleans from the Rockets where he spent the majority of last season backing up Dwight Howard. Asik was eager to get another chance to start, and he will get that chance in New Orleans. He will be paired alongside a budding superstar, Anthony Davis, to form potentially, one of the top defensive duos in the NBA.

The pair should complement each other very nicely as each brings a different set of skills to the table. Asik is a strong and physical player who does a great job using his body to get in position defensively and haul in rebounds. In the one season where Asik started in all 82 games (2012-13 with the Rockets) he averaged 11.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. Davis is still developing physically, though he has made great strides since entering the league, and uses on his incredible length and mobility to send shots back. Davis led the league blocks per game this past season swatting away an average of 2.8 shots per game. The two will give the Pelicans the ability to match up with just about any opposing big men they may face. If they can stay out of foul trouble, and more importantly stay healthy, Davis and Asik will give the Pelicans two outstanding defenders down low.

Gregg Popovich is excited to add Ettore Messina to his staff

It’s hard to imagine the Spurs coaching staff getting much better than it already is, however, this summer they managed to add another top basketball mind to the group in Coach Ettore Messina. Messina joins the Spurs after a long and extraordinarily successful coaching career in Europe. During his time in Europe Messina won four Euroleague titles, was a seven time Italian Cup champion, a five time Russian League Champion and twice named Euroleague Coach of the Year. His long list of accomplishments speaks for itself. The Spurs and Coach Popovich showing they are never content, despite their great run of success.

“That’s just Pop,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said to Fran Blinbury of “He’s open and he’s always hungry and searching for new things to discover about the game and different ways to coach it.”

Messina will offer the Spurs a different perspective on the game, a perspective Popovich will surely try to glean elements from to help improve the defending champs. The Spurs, who already utilize more of a European style of play than most NBA teams, will look to add wrinkles from the knowledge that Messina brings. Popovich has a great respect for Messina and what he has done throughout his career.

“He’s a smart guy, a helluva good coach and a very interesting man,” Popovich said. “Why wouldn’t you want somebody like Ettore to be around your team?”

There is strong frontcourt play throughout the division

The Southwest  boasts some of the top frontcourt pairings in the entire league. Memphis will again be one of the most physical teams in the paint behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The two have been dominant together and been the driving forces behind Grizzlies’ success in recent years. In San Antonio, you have future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, who seems to be only be getting better with age, and Tiago Splitter, who has developed into a tough defender and has continued to improve his touch around the rim. Dwight Howard leads the way in Houston, but Terrance Jones can’t be overlooked. He played great last season, averaging 12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. The Mavs have a future Hall of Famer of their own in Dirk Nowitzki, who like Duncan, hasn’t slowed down much in the latter stages of his career, and Tyson Chandler, who will be a physical defensive presence at center. The Pelicans, as we touched on earlier, will pair a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Anthony Davis, with the big bodied Omer Asik. With so many talented big men in the division there will be battles in the paint on a nightly basis. Whichever frontcourt can consistently win those battles will greatly improve their team’s chances to win games within the division.

The Southwest is loaded with talent and is one of the few divisions where every team has a chance to be competitive this season. At the top you have the Spurs, who will look to make another title run, all the way down to the Pelicans, who continue to make strides behind one of the best young players in the game in Davis. No division win will come easy, expect to see each team jockeying for playoff position right up until the final game of the season.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.


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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John



It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz



We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca



It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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