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NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Could Be The Raptors’ Missing Piece

Kawhi Leonard is showing signs of being close to his old self, which should give the rest of the league cause for concern, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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When the Toronto Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, it was an interesting scenario in that neither player seemed pleased with the move.

DeRozan made his disdain public through social media while reports suggested that Leonard wasn’t too thrilled about it either. It was a rare case in which both players were unhappy with the trade.

Flash-forward a few months later, and it appears that the Raptors gamble is already starting to pay off. DeRozan was a fan favorite. He was with the team when they were barely winning 20 games a season. He helped carry the franchise to relevance. When given the opportunity to sign elsewhere, he didn’t take any free agent pitches and immediately re-signed with the Raptors while professing his loyalty to the city.

It was a risk for the Raptors to trade a beloved star for a player who might not want to be in Toronto, who might not be fully healthy and could bolt at the end of the season. While it remains to be seen what Leonard decides to do come summertime, this much is clear — he’s going to help them win now.

There is usually little stock put into preseason, and for good reason. Guys are working themselves back into game shape, some players are on a minute restriction, everybody is getting back into a routine. But for someone like Leonard, the preseason holds meaning. Preseason is a way for him to show that he’s fully recovered from the injury that saw him miss the majority of last season.

In his first game action since January, Leonard made his Raptors debut over the weekend when Toronto defeated the Portland Trail Blazers in their preseason opener. Leonard clearly looked like a player who hadn’t taken in the court in quite some time, but there were some very encouraging signs.

He was aggressive throughout the game, attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line 11 times. He didn’t shoot particularly well, but that will all come back to him as he gets his legs back under him. His ability to get to the basket will be a much-needed aspect for the Raptors. Drawing contact and getting to the line was one of DeRozan’s strengths.

And then, in what was probably the most welcoming sign for the Raptors and not so welcoming for the rest of the league, Leonard looked close to his old self last night against the Utah Jazz.

He finished with 17 points, all in the first half, on 50 percent shooting from the field. He also got eight attempts at the free-throw line. He looked much more comfortable, especially on the offensive end where he displayed his ability to score in isolation situations against his defender.

The Raptors are hoping that Leonard is the missing piece to an NBA Finals run. Toronto has been among the Eastern Conference’s elite the past few seasons, but have not been able to put it all together come playoff time.

However, the East looks a little bit different this season. LeBron James is gone, off to Los Angeles. The past several years, the road to the Finals went through Cleveland and no East team was able to do anything about it. It’s much more wide open now with James in L.A.

There’s an argument to be made that when healthy, Leonard is the best player in the Eastern Conference. He’s arguably the league’s best defensive player and he can score with the best of them. Prior to his injury, he was a legit top-5 player in the NBA.

As good as DeRozan was, the Raptors have not had a player of Leonard’s caliber and standing in the league since Vince Carter roamed the Air Canada Centre.

What was even more surprising is that the Raptors were able to hold on to much of their prized depth instead of having to part with it in the trade with San Antonio. The talent is there, surrounding Leonard. All that remains to be seen is how he bounces back and whether he can sustain his player throughout the regular season and playoffs. And if these past two preseason games were any indication, the rest of the league should take notice.

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NBA Daily: Evan Turner Helping to Stabilize Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers have struggled with key injuries this season, but Evan Turner has done whatever it takes to fill the void, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The 2018-19 Portland Trail Blazers are a talented team seeking redemption. Even though they were able to secure the third seed in last season’s competitive Western Conference, they still found themselves on the wrong end of a four-game sweep at the hands of the feisty New Orleans Pelicans. In fairness to the Trail Blazers, the Pelicans were a particularly bad matchup despite the homecourt advantage for Portland. Now near the midway point of this season, the Trail Blazers are again angling themselves for the best seed possible and are currently fourth in the Western Conference, just behind the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Now in his third season with the Trail Blazers, veteran forward Evan Turner is proving as valuable as ever in this season’s campaign. Turner serves primarily as a key role player coming off the bench as a scorer, wing defender and back-up point forward. Turner spoke to Basketball Insiders recently to share his thoughts about coming off the bench and his role overall.

“The biggest thing [coming off the bench] shows is your value with how the unit does,” Turner said. “We really just have to keep it consistent and not give up the lead the starters built.”

This season, Turner has almost exclusively come off the bench. He is arguably the team’s most important bench player and serves much more as a point forward for the second unit compared to years past in Portland. Turner’s effectiveness in this role hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates. When asked which teammate has been critical to his own success, reserve guard Nik Stauskas immediately brought up Turner.

“It’s been really good playing with Evan Turner. He’s the point guard of the second unit. It’s been really cool to play with him. He’s a really great point guard. He gets guys involved. He just keeps the rhythm of the game going,” Stauskas said.

When asked about the emphasis on playing point with the other reserves, Turner made it clear that he is quite comfortable with it.

“Yeah, I guess this year we just went full force with it. I grew up doing it throughout my whole playing since I was a kid. You know, in Boston I played that position a lot, in that situation,” Turner said.

Of course, the NBA season is a grind and injuries do occur. In what has become a recurring theme, the health of starting small forward Maurice Harkless is an ongoing issue. Harkless has been in and out of the lineup as he continues to deal with issues relating to a knee injury suffered last season. In the last 11 games, Harkless has only been able to play in four. The injury puts the team in a difficult position as it again positions itself to be a contender.

Despite his health issues and any ensuing instability to the team, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts made his support for Harkless clear.

“He’s our starting small forward. He has been for two years so yeah, very comfortable with him in that spot,” Stotts said.

With the ongoing knee issues for Harkless, Turner said he would be ready to enter into the starting lineup if that’s what the Stotts decided, but expressed some hesitation about being pulled from the second unit.

“I would be comfortable playing anywhere on the court, you know I play basketball. I accept my position. It’s about what molds well for the whole team. You know, I step into the first unit, what happens with the second unit? Who’s going to distribute? Things like that,” Turner said. “Right now, I guess my perk is versatility so it is whatever it is. I’m all about whatever makes sense, in that moment.”

A few weeks ago, Harkless missed two random games and both times Turner had to step into the starting lineup. Both games resulted in a Portland win. However, during a more recent five-game Harkless absence, the Trail Blazers went back to third-year small forward Jake Layman. Layman had been the team’s starting small forward before Harkless was able to ease back into the lineup and his normal starting role.

With the starting position in flux, Turner’s versatile role and consistent play have the Trail Blazers well situated to not drop off too much. When asked what matters to him personally, Turner turned his attention to his team’s success.

“I’ve always been big on, as long as we win, whatever I can do to help, trying to be the consummate pro – that’s all that matters,” Turner said. “When you’re in the locker room, you’re around what really matters, those 15 people in the locker room, along with what your coaches ask you to do. And that’s all I really focus on and that’s what you get paid for.”

When asked about how the general fans often think about the Trail Blazers, Turner had strong words about how the rest of the team is overlooked in favor of the team’s two stars.

“In the overall scheme, when you think about Portland. There is the Dame [Lillard] and C.J. [McCollum] effect and the rest of us are the dead weight.”

Regardless, Turner’s priorities are supporting his teammates and fighting for the team’s overall success. Whatever happens with Harkless, Turner is ready to do whatever is necessary to help his team, which is again angling for a deep playoff run in a stacked Western Conference.

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NBA Daily: Projecting The 2018-19 All-Rookie Teams

With half of the season behind us, these are the ten first-year standouts making a push for the NBA All-Rookie squads.

Ben Nadeau

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With the first half of the NBA season firmly in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look toward All-Star Weekend, the looming trade deadline and, ultimately, the high-stakes playoff chase. Although most of this year’s rookie class — minus one outstanding potential exception — won’t be headed to Charlotte for anything outside of the Rising Stars Challenge, there’s still the matter of sorting out this campaign’s edition of the All-Rookie squads. At this point, the sought-after Rookie of the Year honors will be headed in Luka Dončić’s direction, if not Deandre Ayton’s in the event of a major upset, but the others need not fret just yet!

If you’re in need of a refresher, the All-Rookie teams are voted on by the league’s head coaches, with the single stipulation that they are barred from choosing their own players. The rookies that earn the five highest point totals are selected to the first team, while the next set of vote-getters land on the second. Of note, building a true five-man lineup — ie, two guards, three frontcourt players — does not factor into the final result. So, while the idea of running out a real team of Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, Jahlil Okafor and Devin Booker — or, in other words, the 2015-16 First Team — sounds insane in principle, it’s perfectly fair game for the All-Rookie results.

With that in mind, here’s how the two rookie teams might shake out by season’s end.

Honorable Mentions: Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls; Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks; Landry Shamet, Philadelphia 76ers; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers; Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves

First Team:

Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks

What’s there to be said about Dončić that hasn’t been gushed about profusely already? He’s the current odds-on favorite to be Rookie of the Year, while also maintaining his remarkable edge as the third-highest voter-getter in the entire NBA for next month’s All-Star Game. Even if he’s not chosen as a starter, Dončić’s resume is incredible and he may just make it as a reserve selection through the head coach vote anyway. If Dončić does go to Charlotte for the Sunday fireworks, he’d be the first rookie to earn those honors since Blake Griffin in 2011 and, before that, Yao Ming in 2003.

Which is to basically say, for lack of a better term at this point: Whoa. Dončić has started all 43 contests for the Mavericks, averaging 20.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.5 three-pointers over 32.1 minutes per game. Craziest of all, he’ll turn just 20 years-old in February — talk about a sky-high ceiling. So, yes, Dončić is a shoo-in for the All-Rookie First Team, if not some even bigger and grander achievements before long.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

If Dončić is the runaway winner for Rookie of the Year, Ayton is a fantastic consolation prize. Selected at No. 1 overall, Ayton has been a truly special player for the Suns and the 7-foot-1 center has tallied an impressive 16.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and a block over 31 minutes per game. In a strange way, Dončić’s extremely fast rise to stardom has somehow reflected poorly on Ayton, as if the Suns missed on their evaluation of the two youngsters. But make no mistake: Ayton is a star in the making and the Suns will have likely found their franchise cornerstone for the next decade-plus as well.

In a tight battle against the Nets in December, Ayton dominated Brooklyn to the tune of 26 points, 18 rebounds and three blocks on 81.3 percent from the floor — what else could you want? Paired alongside the superhuman scoring efforts of Devin Booker, the duo currently combines for 41 of the Suns’ 106 points per game — of course, Ayton is just 20 years of age, while Booker is 22. There’s a wait-and-see approach to Ayton’s defense but he appears to be a show-stopping shot blocker at the very least. As with all of the names on this list, there’s plenty of time for Ayton to improve on that below-par front too. But for now, it’s just best to sit back and enjoy the talents of another First Team lock.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

It’s been a wild ride for Jaren Jackson Jr. through the first three months of his professional career and it’s about to get far more interesting from here on out. After starting the season as surprise postseason candidates, the Grizzlies have recently lost 10 of their last 11 games and sunk to 14th in the conference standings. Should Memphis become sellers at the deadline, Jackson’s usage could balloon between now and April — that alone would make Grizzlies games worth tuning into. At 6-foot-11, Jackson has the chance to be the class’ very best defender and he’s always exhibiting that rim protecting prowess down low.

Jackson has turned in 18 multi-block games — including 12 of three or more — in 45 games and his scoring ability is already beyond what most thought he’d display during his rookie campaign. In one late November contest, Jackson swatted seven shots and went 4-for-4 from deep — so look for no further proof that the 19-year-old might be another unicorn in the making. Within another less top-heavy draft class, Jackson would be the clear crown jewel — alas, he’s still a piece that the Grizzlies can be thrilled about building around for the foreseeable future.

Kevin Knox, New York Knicks

So far, Kevin Knox’s initial foray into the NBA has been forged from some incredible highs, not every-night consistencies. Knox has tallied below his season average of 12.5 points on 17 separate occasions — and failed to reach double-digits scoring in 13 of those — but the Knicks’ newcomer looks like a keeper nonetheless. In a couple of inspired efforts, Knox dropped 31 points and seven rebounds in a slim loss to the 76ers; then, last month, the former Wildcat recorded 26 points and 15 rebounds in stat-stuffing fashion. And although he’s had his fair share of rough performances, Knox has also knocked down two or more three-pointers in 20 games already. Useful in spots all over the floor, Knox just needs to improve his efficiencies before he becomes a household name in the demanding New York market.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic as the Knicks also tout Mitchell Robinson, Allonzo Trier and another incoming top-five draftee headed their way, plus the possibility of a max contract free agent. But whether or not the Knicks land a Kevin Durant-level player or add a blue-chipper like Zion Williamson seems less important by the game — Knox might be that good. Those in New York keep checking the horizon for their franchise savior but, the thing is, they may already have him in blue and orange.

Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

Dončić is an incredible player, obviously, so, until very recently, any time Trae Young was mentioned, even in passing, it came back to the Hawks’ decision to make that draft day swap. Perhaps unfair, and then made even worse by Dončić’s transcendent start, it left Young with little coverage outside of that initial status as a footnote. If those days weren’t far behind already, they definitely will be now. In his own right, Young has blossomed as of late for Atlanta, even notching 16 or more points in all but two games since Christmas.

Furthermore, Young’s 7.2 assists lead all rookies by a large margin, including Dončić’s second-best mark of 5.1. Actually, it’s even better than that as Young’s impressive rate currently lands him in the top ten league-wide, only bested by perennial All-Stars and the breakout stud of the season, De’Aaron Fox. Efficiency has not always been Young’s best friend, but he’s adjusted to the stronger defenses and professional schemes as well as one might hope for such a high-usage college standout. Naturally, Young has not reached the massive summits that he did during his single season at Oklahoma — no 48-point explosions just yet — but it feels like the best is still to come here.

Second Team:

Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

Once touted as a possible Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Collin Sexton has settled into a positive, reliable role for the Cavaliers. Although he’s not torching opposing defenses, Sexton has held his own against stiff competition since the New Year — a list that now includes Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday and Victor Oladipo. Sexton has averaged a solid 14.6 points and 2.8 assists on 41.7 percent from the field so far, all while shouldering a massive load of responsibility for one of the NBA’s worst teams. While it’d be a real shame to miss out on the potential of a Sexton and Kevin Love-led duo, snagging more future assets to put around their 20-year-old centerpiece is a tantalizing thought.

Kevin Huerter, Atlanta Hawks

Young isn’t the only talented rookie in Atlanta and Kevin Huerter has been an excellent Robin to the point guard’s Batman. Huerter wasn’t even the starter until late November but he’s proving why he soared up draft boards during combine season. In the last month, the Hawks have turned the reins over to their wonderful class of prospects and, in turn, have won more games in the last 30 days (eight) than they did in the first 60 (six). Undoubtedly, Huerter’s microwavable scoring has been a large reason why. Known as a certifiable bucket-getter, Huerter still contributes offensively beyond just points, even registering three or more assists on 22 instances in 2018-19 already. Whether or not he turns into the next Klay Thompson, Huerter absolutely fits into the mold of the modern NBA — he’ll be on the Second Team come springtime at the very least.

Rodions Kurucs, Brooklyn Nets

Without a doubt, Rodions Kurucs has been a hot-ticket item as of late — and for good reason. The second-rounder out of Latvia has earned an increase in playing time since Dec. 14 and Nets instantly became better, that much is clear. Since Kurucs joined the starting lineup, Brooklyn has only gone 13-5, no big deal. The No. 40 overall selection has scored double-digits in four of the Nets last six games, including a 24-point breakout performance against the Boston Celtics. For a 20-year-old that was banished to the bench in Barcelona, his early contributions are out of this world. Kurucs may be raw, but he’s aggressive, fills his role and exhibits an ability to hit from long range or off the rebound. If he keeps this up, it’ll be really hard not to reward Kurucs with a well-deserved spot on the Second Team.

Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings

At this time, the spectacular is not exactly in Marvin Bagley III’s wheelhouse — but for what he lacks in gaudy statistical lines, the power forward makes up in off-the-bench consistency. Bagley has grabbed 10-plus points in his last four contests — paired with solid rebounding numbers of seven, nine, 11 and eight to boot — all over an average of just 23 minutes per game. Before a back injury knocked the rookie out for nearly a month, Bagley was still finding his feet as a reliable scorer but he’s worked well with Harry Giles, Sacramento’s other promising frontcourt asset. The Kings have gone 3-1 since his return to the rotation, so the surprise franchise could start leaning on the 19-year-old as they push to get back in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture. If Bagley gets his assumed second half bump in minutes, there’s a great chance that he’ll have the numbers and growth needed to earn these rookie honors.

Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

With yesterday’s news that Wendell Carter Jr. would miss the next 8-12 weeks following thumb surgery, Mikal Bridges slides seamlessly into his spot as the Suns’ two-way standout. Bridges is feeling things out as an NBA scorer, but he provides stellar defense and contributes in ways that don’t always show up in the box score. The former Villanova star won’t pour it in, especially when playing alongside the high-usage Booker, but Bridges ranks second in steals per game (1.37) and sixth in three-point percentage (34.7) among all qualified rookies. Bridges’ high BBIQ often translates into easy thefts, exhibited by his 20 multi-steal performances through 46 career contests. Bridges hasn’t begun his professional journey with as much noticeable star power as many others in his draft class, but there’s bankable potential here in no uncertain terms.

It’s only late January, so the fates of these talented rookies are nowhere close to sealed — with the exception of a generational few, of course. Competition for the two All-Rookie squads are always fierce, but more importantly, they’re not an indication or guarantee of future successes. So whether or not your favorite first-year makes the cut in April, this draft classes looks to be as good as advertised. Between Doncic gunning for an All-Star Game berth and the unexpected abilities of a second-rounder in Kurucs, the first-year narratives have been wholly entertaining — no matter where voting lands at season’s end.

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NBA Daily: Who Could Be on the Move at the Trade Deadline?

Basketball Insiders breaks down some potential trade candidates as we move closer to the February 7 trade deadline.

Shane Rhodes

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The February Trade Deadline is one of the most important dates of the NBA season. As team look to fortify their squads down the stretch, deals are made that can either make or break a playoff push, or set up a team for the future.

The trade market has been quiet so far this season — Kyle Korver to Utah, George Hill to Milwaukee and an almost-trade between the Grizzlies, Suns and Wizards have been the biggest headlines — but, with the deadline just under three weeks away, that cold streak is bound to end soon. Whether they are disgruntled, a bad fit or just no longer a fit with the direction of their respective franchise, there are plenty of players could be had for the right price.

So, who could be on the move come February 7?

Jabari Parker, Chicago Bulls

The Jabari Parker experiment hasn’t worked out exactly as the Chicago Bulls had hoped.

Parker had the perfect opportunity in front of him with Lauri MArkkanen expected to miss the start of the season, but he failed to grasp it. His numbers would fluctuate on a nightly basis, sometimes he looked like the former top pick but sometimes he looked unplayable. Now, with Markkanen back, Parker has been completely removed from the rotation by head coach Jim Boylen.

If there was a player that needed a fresh start, it would be Parker.

Chicago gave Parker a two-year, $40 million contract with a club option for next season; any team that adds him at the deadline could easily remove him from their future plans if things don’t work out. But the upside is there — Parker was a top pick for a reason — and, if a change of scenery or personnel does him some good, Parker could be a major asset down the stretch.

Robin Lopez, Chicago Bulls

Robin Lopez is another Bull in flux. Lopez hasn’t meshed exceedingly well in Chicago and doesn’t fit the team’s long term plans.

Lopez landed with the Bulls in 2016 when they were barely competitive enough to take the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The team situation has only gotten worse since, and Chicago has languished at the bottom of the NBA barrel. Meanwhile, Lopez has taken a backseat to the younger players amidst the Bulls’ rebuild.

Lopez and his camp have discussed an exit strategy with the team but, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, the Bulls are determined to trade Lopez and acquire an asset rather than buyout his contract, and they should easily be able to find another team to accommodate. While he hasn’t posted great numbers this season — Lopez has averaged 5.9 points, and 2.6 rebounds in 16.4 minutes per game — they can largely be attributed to the nature of his role on the team.

Lopez is still a competent center and could make an impact for a team, whether they be looking for someone to roam the paint or just a simple late-season energy boost.

Enes Kanter, New York Knicks

Enes Kanter could be on the move again.

As David Fizdale attempts to navigate the New York Knicks rebuild, Kanter has been a rotation casualty a la Lopez in Chicago. While he is still a solid offensive contributor — he has averaged 14.2 points and 11 rebounds over the last two seasons — Kanter is no longer a fit in New York with rookie Mitchell Robinson in the fold and the return of Kristaps Porzignis on the horizon.

Kanter, a free agent come season’s end, isn’t a long term commitment either, which could make him more attractive to a contender looking for a quality addition in a tight salary cap situation. Meanwhile, any asset the Knicks can take back to help further the rebuild is a welcome one.

Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic

Nikola Vucevic has been on a tear the last few seasons. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, Vucevic has averaged 17.6 points, 10.2 rebounds 2.8 assists and a block per game. This season he has been even better; the center has averaged a career high in points (20.2), rebounds (11.9), assists (3.8), field goal percentage (52.5) and three-point percentage (38.3).

Meanwhile, the Orlando Magic are, once again, in the bottom half of the standings.

Vucevic, in the last season of his deal, has a case for best expiring contract/player on the market. And, with Mohamed Bamba waiting in the wings, his future standing in Orlando isn’t very clear. If the Magic hope to one day return to relevancy, trading Vucevic may be the best course of action. Not only could he bring back a premium asset, but the extra playing time afforded to Bamba would be beneficial to his development.

The benefits for any acquiring team are obvious; Vucevic is a premium player and could prove a major difference maker come the postseason.

Dennis Smith Jr., Dallas Mavericks

According to Tim MacMahon and Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, the Dallas Mavericks were “escalating” efforts to trade guard Dennis Smith Jr. Just two days later, according to MacMahon, the Mavericks have changed course and hope to reconcile the current situation with Smith.

So which is it?

More often than not, if a team was willing to trade a player once, they’ll be willing to do so again. While Dallas made Smith a top-10 back in 2017, the franchise has since changed course; the arrival of Luka Doncic has spurred the Mavericks to success, but it has also changed Smith’s role, a change that has had a negative impact on his play. Smith has seen a significant drop in usage rate in his second season; that has coincided with a drop in his points, assists, rebounds and field goal attempts per game as well.

Smith needs the ball in his hands in order to make an impact on the court. However, with Doncic in the picture, that just isn’t going to happen in Dallas. Still, Smith is a talented guard and, just partly into his second season, there should be plenty of teams willing to take a chance on the 21-year-old, which means plenty of quality offers for the Mavericks on the open market.

At this point, a trade may be best for both parties.

As the February 7 Trade Deadline inches closer, the rumor mill is bound to start turning. With so many teams still in a competitive position at this point in the season, the 2019 deadline season could end up being one of the busier periods in recent memory. And, while these players may be some of the more likely to be moved, almost anyone and everyone could be had for the right price.

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