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NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch — Southwest Division

Young point guards are the theme in the Southwest Division and whichever one breaks out this season could determine the West’s eighth seed, writes Douglas Farmer.

Douglas Farmer

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Not too long ago, the Southwest Division was filled to the brim with title contenders and certain playoff teams. Only the Houston Rockets remain in those major categories as turnover has left the rest of the division balancing contention with rebuilding. That has the clear byproduct of introducing a bevy of new players into contributing roles, some of whom will inevitably yield unexpected contributions. Whether these teams are vying for a final playoff seed or working through the next step in a do-over, here are five candidates for a big-time breakout in 2019-20.

All week, Basketball Insiders has been covering the division’s biggest up-and-comers — so if you’re behind, fix that here. Or here. And maybe even here. OK, great, now that you’re all caught up, here are the Southwest Division’s best bets.

Danuel House, Houston Rockets

On a veteran-heavy roster, the sole exception could play a key role just a year after contentious contract negotiations cost him NBA playing time. When his time on a two-way contract ran its course, House refused to sign what he believed to be a below-market offer from the Rockets, instead headed back to the G-League. In time, Houston converted his contract and put off those negotiations into the summer, where House signed a three-year, $11.15 million deal.

To some degree, the Rockets did not have a choice. They need what House provides and that is shooting. In 39 NBA games last season, House made 41.6 percent of his three-pointers on 6.5 attempts per 36 minutes. Someone needs to provide spacing around James Harden and Russell Westbrook, while Houston does not have many other options aside from Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker. For those who may argue Austin Rivers can fill some of that role, remember he shot just 31.8 percent from deep last year.

House may or may not crack the Rockets’ starting lineup, but his offensive role is key to their success.

Tyus Jones, Memphis Grizzlies

It feels like cheating to select a fresh lottery pick as a breakout player when a fifth-year veteran is about to get his first full-time opportunity after being repeatedly passed over for a prominent role at his previous stop. Without a doubt, rookie point guard Ja Morant will get all the run possibly needed to develop, but Jones will be Memphis’ backup point guard and sometimes the functional 2-guard.

Jones was a steadying influence with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but still garnered only 22.9 minutes per game last season — a year in which his 6.96-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio set an NBA record.

The Grizzlies already have their core of the future in Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. When they have chances to win, they will presumably do whatever it takes to do so, so having someone as efficient as Jones on hand to initiate the offense could prove invaluable. His distribution abilities should make the likes of Jackson, Brandon Clarke and Grayson Allen look good, furthering his benefit to this rebuild.

If nothing else, a fanbase that loved the Grit and Grind ethos will appreciate a workman like Jones, a contributor that’s more focused on aiding his teammates than getting his own buckets.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans Pelicans

It is conceivable the Pelicans drafted Alexander-Walker with the 17th pick without intentions of plugging him into a genuine role this season. They were in the midst of completing a spectacular offseason and, among their additions to the roster, Alexander-Walker warrants no higher than seventh billing. Nonetheless, New Orleans is almost certainly going to have to play the Canadian point guard. To date, he has removed any real choice in the matter.

At 6-foot-5, and a nearly a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Alexander-Walker will match up well defensively with nearly any other backup point guard. He may not score much right away — his cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did not as a rookie last season — but by not being a defensive liability, he should remove any strong reason for head coach Alvin Gentry to keep him glued to the bench.

The Pelicans do not have many other backup point guard options. Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball will form a dynamic starting backcourt. Splitting them up too much will run contrary to New Orleans’ playoff aspirations. If Alexander-Walker can simply set up J.J. Redick and Josh Hart, he will be a worthy second-unit leader. Doing so on a fringe playoff team will earn Alexander-Walker widespread notice, perhaps to a point that we can do away with the extra keystrokes of his hyphenated last name and simply commit to NAW.

Lonnie Walker, San Antonio Spurs

When discussing second-year players on the verge of making an impact, Walker gets unfairly forgotten. That is to be expected after not making more than one field goal in any playoff game and appearing in only 17 regular-season contests as a rookie. That was not Walker’s fault, but the result of a preseason meniscus tear in the same knee that he injured in 2017.

If he had been healthy, Walker’s contributions last year probably would have been minimal, anyway. That is just how San Antonio tends to handle rookies. But the Spurs also work young players into the rotation with time, and Walker will likely force that issue as a possible 3-and-D wing of the future.

He shot only 5-of-13 from deep in the NBA, but in the G League — working his way back from rehab to parent club-ready in 28 games — Walker hit 36.6 percent from beyond the arc while notching 1.2 steals per game. The raw long-term skills are apparent and his ability to get to the rim will earn Walker playing time as those traits mature.

Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks

Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle is notoriously reluctant to give too much control to his point guard and is just as known for limiting rookies’ roles. So it came as some surprise when he leaned so heavily on not only Luka Doncić last season, but also Brunson. Then again, Brunson spent as long leading Villanova as Doncić did playing professionally overseas — so both were more experienced than the average rookie is these days.

Obviously Doncić got the headlines, and that will not change, but Brunson’s job description should expand from 21.8 minutes per game. J.J. Barea may be recovering quickly from a January-torn Achilles, but there is a distinct difference between intrasquad scrimmages and regular-season action.

“I’m feeling better than I thought I was going to,” Barea said Monday. “I still got a way to go. But the more I play, the more I move, it gets better.”

As long as Barea is recovering — which, bluntly, could limit him to some extent well past the All-Star break, given the difficulty most players have finding explosiveness after an Achilles tear — Brunson will be Dallas’ No. 2 point guard and, oftentimes, Doncić’s backcourt partner.

Projecting what that role will bring statistics-wise is a difficult endeavor for a team ready to incorporate Kristaps Porzingis, but there is no reason to think Brunson will not build on his per-36 averages of 15.3 points and 5.2 assists as a rookie.

Ultimately, there is a reason four of these possible breakout players are point guards — and that is a reflection of how well run the Southwest Division is from top-to-bottom, frequently allowing young talent to handle the ball and involve teammates. The Rockets may be the only surefire playoff team in the mix in mid-October — but if these players step forward, the Pelicans, Spurs and Mavericks could start reaching for some postseason aspirations too — while Jones positions the Grizzlies for a quick rebuild and subsequent reentry into that conversation.

Contributing writer to Basketball Insiders, based in Minneapolis since 2017 with previous stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. Went 32-of-40 at the backyard free throw line this past Christmas. Twitter: @D_Farmer

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return

Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.

Chad Smith

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Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.

Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.

Then, it happened.

With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.

Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.

His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.

To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.

After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.

Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.

And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor

That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.

Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.

Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.

For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.

With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.

But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.

In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”

Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.

And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.

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NBA Daily: Devonte’ Graham — Breakout or Mirage?

Devonte’ Graham has been one of the 2019-20 regular season’s most pleasant surprises. But is his current level of play something close to the new normal, or an early-season flash in the pan? Jack Winter examines.

Jack Winter

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Based on the first two weeks of the regular season, the Charlotte Hornets seem to have found their franchise point guard.

It’s a reality that’s come as a major surprise to most fans and analysts, who deemed the three-year, $57 million contract Charlotte awarded to Terry Rozier as among the summer’s very worst. More shocking, though, is that it’s not Rozier who’s staked his claim as the Hornets’ undisputed floor general in the season’s early going.

To be fair, even the die-hards whose eyes were opened by Devonte’ Graham at Summer League didn’t see this coming. He’s been Charlotte’s most influential player, and it’s not particularly close. The Hornets outscore opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions with Graham on the court compared to the bench, per NBA.com/stats, best among regulars. While his per-game averages of 17.0 points and 7.0 assists are hardly spectacular, they’re also a team-high in both categories.

It’s not like Graham, who’s come off the bench in Charlotte’s eight games, has done a sizable majority of his work against reserves, either. He’s fourth on Charlotte in total minutes, and is the only player head coach James Borrego has felt it necessary to have on the floor for each of his team’s 19 crunch time played this season.

Coming into 2019-20, believers saw enough in Graham to think he could be a valuable third guard, if the long-range shooting prowess he showed in Las Vegas wasn’t a flash in the pan, anyway. He launched a whopping 6.9 triples per game at Summer League, connecting at a 41.8 percent clip despite most of his tries coming off the bounce. Graham has been even better than that for the Hornets, putting the kind of imminent pressure on defenses with the ball that’s allowed other aspects of his game to shine.

Graham, obviously, won’t shoot 50 percent on pull-up threes all season. But even if he recedes to somewhere in the mid-to-upper thirties, he’ll nevertheless have staked his claim as one of the league’s most dangerous off-dribble shooters.

Graham has let it fly with such freedom and confidence early in the season that it’s tempting to believe that inevitable regression isn’t a foregone conclusion. He’s jacking 4.3 pull-up threes per game, 10th-most in basketball behind a who’s who of star shot-makers. Only Buddy Hield is currently shooting a higher percentage on those tries than Graham, and his film would seem to reveal a player more in line with that esteemed company than one due for a significant backslide.

Graham shoots an easy ball, and his quick, compact release allows him to frequently rise up for threes with only marginal contests by the defense. He loves to stop and pull-up in transition, and doesn’t hesitate to shoot when defenders give him even just a sliver of air space, whether coming around a high ball screen or isolated at the top of the floor.

Graham’s balance on step-backs and side-steps is also impressive and, coupled with his comfort from multiple feet behind the line, sparks optimism about his long-term prospects as a game-changing shooter.

But possessing that plus attribute alone would limit his ceiling to a glorified Quinn Cook – certainly a helpful player, but not the type of guy whose presence answers more questions than it poses. Graham, though, has leveraged his newfound threat as an off-dribble marksman into star-like effectiveness as an overall playmaker.

Graham, 24, played all four years at the University of Kansas, and it shows in the way he operates with the ball. He’s always probing for ways to manipulate the defense with ball fakes, look-aways and extra dribbles, nuance that, combined with defenders’ fear of his jumper, has made him a more effective penetrator than he would be otherwise.

He is merely an average quick-twitch athlete, but Graham compensates with rare body control and a keen understanding of how to protect the ball while finishing. His 71.4 percent shooting at the rim, accuracy normally reserved for the Giannis Antetokounmpo’s and dunk-centric bigs of the world, is another statistical outlier bound to drop as the season wears on, but indicates just how crafty Graham is around the basket.

Graham doesn’t need to be an elite or even above-average finisher for a guard. With defenders going over every screen he uses on or off the ball and tip-toeing at every hesitation dribble, he’ll continue creasing the paint with relative ease going forward, drawing attention that frees up his teammates for easy looks.

Other than the shooting, it’s as a table-setter where Graham has inspired most thus far. The same sense of control and pace he exhibits as a scorer is even more evident as a passer; Graham has routinely been a step ahead of the defense, creating angles that aren’t initially there for pocket passes and dump-offs in the paint. He’s even tossed a few pinpoint lobs from half court, too.

It bears repeating that Graham won’t shoot flames from distance the entire season. Defenses will treat him differently once that regression comes, prompting a ripple effect that’s likely to decrease his efficiency and make him less dynamic with the ball.

But, even if Graham settles into a 35 percent pull-up shooter from three, he’ll still be a surefire rotation player. Ball handlers who must be guarded beyond the arc and know how to create in the paint will always have a role in the league, especially those who double as solid defenders.

Graham’s innate knack for getting to the line raises his baseline, too. James Harden and Goran Dragic, foul-drawing maestros, are the only players also taking at least half of their shots from deep who have a higher free throw rate than Graham’s 39.8 percent, per Basketball Reference.

For now, Graham’s ceiling is unknown. Considering his marginal physical profile and the fact his current level of shot-making is unsustainable, it would seem as if Graham’s early-season play might be his peak. His 41.9 percent shooting on twos doesn’t exactly portend stardom, either.

But then you remember how much he’s improved since last season, and how with each game the action seems to be slowing down.

Only true basketball savants, after all, are capable of making plays like this at the NBA level.

Fortunately for the Hornets, they don’t need to decide how Graham fits into their utmost plans any time soon. His rookie contract runs through next season, sending him to restricted free agency in the summer of 2021.

And, until then, Charlotte should continue to stretch the limits of his game. As his recent play has made abundantly clear, putting a cap on Graham’s potential could prove missed opportunity the Hornets won’t get again.

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Conclusions From the Suns’ Hot Start

Following their best start in years, Phoneix has shown that they are no longer the NBA’s stomping grounds. Matt John examines what has gone into building the team and, arguably, made them the league’s most pleasant surprise.

Matt John

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Yes, pun very much intended.

Thursday night, the Phoenix Suns suffered their third loss of the season at the hands of the Miami HEAT. Miami, so far, has appeared to be one of the better teams in the league, so seeing them get in the win the desert isn’t too out of the ordinary.

The real shock is that this was the first time that Phoenix was outclassed all season.

Keeping it modest, the Suns were expected to be outclassed left and right when the season began. But, with the loss to Miami, they now stand at 5-3. At first glance, a start like that is encouraging, especially for a team like Phoenix that has dwelled in the NBA’s depths for the better part of 10 years.

But — and good news Suns fans — there’s more to it than that.

Before the HEAT loss, Phoenix’s other two losses came at the hands of the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, playoff teams a season ago and, in 2019-20, expected to once reside in the class of the Western Conference. Better yet, both games were decided by a single point, and on last-second shots, no less.

Even against Miami game, the Suns gave it their all for most of the game, which hasn’t exactly been the case for them in recent seasons.

Factoring that in, it’s not just that Phoenix has won more than most thought they would, but they’ve hung around with the best of the best this season.

It’s an odd wrinkle to the season, for sure, that absolutely no one saw coming. But, nevertheless, it’s a welcome sight. In a season that has had plenty of surprises, Phoenix’s best start in years may top them all. But what can we take away from that encouraging start? What should we? Let’s take a look.

Devin Booker and the “Good Stats/Bad Team” Label

Practically since he stepped on an NBA parquet, Devin Booker’s put up magnificent offensive numbers. In fact, following his rookie year, Booker may be the closest thing to a guaranteed bucket that we’ve seen.

In his now five NBA seasons, Booker has also taken massive strides as playmaker. In that time, he’s seen his assists per game jump from just 2.6 his rookie year to a strong 6.8 last season.

Yet, despite the offensive fireworks, Booker has generated little All-Star buzz. The reason has almost always been the same — Phoenix’s success, or lack thereof, combined with the boatload of talent that has made up the Western Conference.

Of course, an All-Star appearance isn’t the be-all-end-all for NBA players. But, unfortunately, the lack of buzz Booker has generated has made many question whether his numbers are truly elite or just empty calories, just an alright player stat-stuffing on an offensively inept roster.

Hopefully, at least thus far, those doubters have come to the conclusion that Booker is anything but. In eight games, Booker has put up his usual, dominant stat line — 25.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5 assists — but, with improvements made up-and-down the roster, has managed to do so more efficiently; Booker has shot the ball 52.9 percent from the floor and 50 percent from three-point range, both career highs.

Behind him, the Suns have started the season on a roll. But, if you’re still not convinced, just check his on-off numbers: Phoenix is plus-18.4 points per 100 possessions when Booker is on the floor.

It’s a small sample, sure, and Booker has a lot left to prove defensively. But, when he’s on the floor, the Suns are clearly a better team.

And, assuming their start isn’t just a big fluke, then there may be nothing stopping Booker from making his first All-Star appearance (or at least drumming up some consideration).

The Importance of the Right Personnel

It’s a shame that they’ve only now started to garner some attention, but Phoenix has sneakily made some great moves in recent seasons, and especially this last offseason.

Now, not to say their front office is perfect — they’ve been far from that. The number of moves or former players that one could attach “-fiasco” to is astonishing.

But Phoenix has gotten to where they are this season through some seriously competent additions. They acquired an undervalued asset from the Washington Wizards in Kelly Oubre Jr., an overpaid but productive Tyler Johnson from the HEAT, a buy-low candidate in Dario Saric prior to the 2019 draft.

And, of course, perhaps their most important acquisitions in the last five years, the installment of James Jones as the team’s general manager and Monty Williams their head coach.

The Oubre deal flew under the radar, in part, because of the failed three-way trade with Washington and the Memphis Grizzlies just days earlier. An energetic 3-and-D wing whose youth made him another potential asset on the same timeline as Booker, Oubre was acquired for a then 33-year-old Trevor Ariza, who wasn’t long for Phoenix anyway. The Suns gave Oubre a rich extension over the summer — a two-year, $30 million pact — and, so far, he’s proven worth every penny as he’s averaged 17.1 points and 5.5 rebounds on respectable shooting splits.

Johnson, to a much lesser extent, was another successful move. Grossly overpaid? You betcha. But, while they may have had to swallow the $19.2 million price tag, Johnson brought stability to the guard spot and, behind Booker and now Ricky Rubio, is an upgrade over what Phoenix had had there previously.

Many were confused when Phoneix traded the sixth overall pick for the 11th and Saric, but he has proven a strong option in the frontcourt as he’s averaged 8.9 points and 6.1 rebounds and posted a plus-6.1 in eight games. Saric can also add some much-needed floor spacing and playmaking, while he also is one of the few on the team with some postseason experience.

There have been plenty of other, solid additions: Rubio, Aron Baynes, Frank Kaminsky and others. While the general consensus wasn’t exactly positive, the team desperately needed a veteran like Rubio in the backcourt alongside Booker, while Baynes and Kaminsky have proven vital in the absence of Deandre Ayton, lost to suspension.

As a result of these moves, the Suns are more well-rounded than they’ve been in years. They’ll definitely need further reinforcements, but now they have a solid core around their star, Booker, a core that, clearly can compete night-in and night-out.

We Have Our First Coach of the Year Candidate

Even with the right roster in place, a good team still needs the right maestro to make it all work. And Monty Williams has proven the right man for the job in Phoenix.

For the longest time, Phoenix has had little to call home about; they’ve ranked near the bottom of every statistical category whether it be offensive or defensive rating, three-point percentage, total points, rebounds or assists. It was never pretty.

But, in his first year, Williams has done everything he can to turn that around. The Suns, thus far, are sixth in the NBA in net rating (5), while they have also shot the second-highest true-shooting percentage (58.2) and seventh-highest three-point percentage (37.3). They have averaged the second-most assists per game (27), while their 114.1 points per game is good for seventh in the NBA.

Of course, give credit where credit is due and applaud the players for the turnaround. But, much of that success should also be attributed to Williams, who has established a system that has worked wonders on the court and positive culture in the Suns’ locker room.

In fact, he’s done such a great job to this point, that it would be a shock if he wasn’t in the running for Coach of the Year in his first with the team. The season is still young, but if Phoneix can keep this up Williams could prove a shoo-in for the award.

This Might Not Be the Final Product

As it’s been stated before, Phoenix improved in many areas, but they’re not without their flaws. No team is.

With Ayton gone, they lack a major scoring threat to take the load off of Booker. And, as good as they’ve been, opponents should start to take advantage of that and dare the Suns’ lesser players to score. Even once Ayton’s back in the fold, another option behind him and Booker would only ease the burden on Phoneix’s young roster.

The Suns could also use more help on the defensive perimeter. As of now, they’re in the middle of the pack on that side of the ball. But, if they want to completely right the ship, they need to get even better.

That said, it’s impressive to see how far Phoenix has come, and even more exciting to think that they could even get better. Lucky for them, there should be plenty of players on the market that could help them and, with Johnson’s large salary, the Suns should have no trouble matching salaries.

Danillo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala and a number of other veterans on not-so-great teams could prove solid additions, depending on where the Suns find themselves later in the year.

Don’t get ahead of yourself: nobody is saying Phoenix is a title contender. The excitement may fade, and it may be all for naught if they miss the postseason.

But playing competitive, winning basketball is a huge step in the right direction. And, so far, the Suns have done little else than do just that. “The Phoenix Suns are back!” sure does have quite a nice ring to it.

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