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How do NBA draft picks work?

Every year in April, fans tune in to watch the future of the NBA come to fruition. That’s right, the NBA Draft introduces the league with new talent, who fans and team executives alike have been following for years. Who will be a star and who will be a bust? And the biggest head scratcher, who should your team take with their draft picks? The future success of your team is potentially on the line with every decision made on draft day.

How do NBA draft picks work? The NBA Draft consists of 2 rounds, and each NBA team has one pick per round, meaning two picks for every draft. With these picks, NBA teams can select an eligible player from that draft, which gives them exclusive rights to sign the drafted player to their team. A team can have more than 2 draft picks (acquired via trades) or less than 2 draft picks (traded away, stripped of a pick[s] as punishment from the league). Teams can also deal with future draft picks when making a trade deal with other teams.

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What players can be selected with draft picks?

A team can select any player who is eligible for that year’s NBA Draft with their draft picks. Eligibility for draft picks varies based on criteria. The two most important criteria for eligibility are that the player must be at least 19 years old, and that the player is at least one year removed from high school graduation. There are a few types of eligibility.

The first type of eligibility is considered automatic eligibility. This refers to any player who meets the minimum criteria and has also a) completed 4 years of college eligibility, or b) has graduated from a U.S high school at least 4 years ago (without having enrolled in a U.S university), or c) has signed a contract and played with a professional team outside of the NBA (must be released from the contract).

The second type of eligibility is considered early-entry; this refers to players who aren’t automatically eligible but meet the minimum criteria and wish to declare their eligibility. These players must declare for the NBA Draft at least 60 days before it takes place, and can withdraw from it at least 10 days before the NBA Draft. If a player signs an agent or declares for 2 drafts, they lose out on their college eligibility. It is entirely possible that a player can declare for a draft, not get drafted, and lose out on their college eligibility.

The rulings for eligibility for international players are slightly different. A player is considered “international” if they a) permanently live outside the U.S for at least 3 years while playing professional basketball, b) have never enrolled in a U.S university, and c) did not complete high school in the U.S (must meet all 3 criteria). International players still need to meet the minimum requirements (19 years old, 1 year removed from high school) to be eligible. They can be automatically eligible if they are at least 22 years old or if they have signed a contract and played with a professional team in the U.S (but not in the NBA of course).

Why do some teams have more or less draft picks than other teams?

Draft picks are a valuable asset for teams, as they are key to building any sort of future or foundation for a team. Some teams prioritize long-term success, especially in the face of a weaker, current team, while other teams prioritize immediate winning. Teams who are trading away their star players often ask for draft picks in return. Draft picks from the upcoming draft as well as from future drafts can be dealt. Recently, the Oklahoma City Thunder have acquired 19 draft picks from other teams for the next few years, in addition to their own picks. Likewise, there are plenty of teams with only one draft pick each for the next couple of drafts.

The NBA has also seized draft picks from teams who have broken rules. For example, the 2022 NBA Draft had only 58 picks, because the NBA seized 1 second-round draft pick each from the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks for breaking free agency tampering rules.

What are the rules for trading draft picks?

Teams are only allowed to trade future draft picks up to 7 years in the future. Likewise, the Stepien rule dictates that teams cannot trade away first-round picks for two consecutive drafts; for example, a team cannot trade their 2023 and 2024 first-round picks away (there are some exceptions to this rule). This is to ensure that the future of an organization is not extremely jeopardized by current management.

Teams can also “protect” their picks in a trade. For example, Team A trades their first-round pick to Team B; however, Team A’s pick is “top-10 protected.” Meaning, when the draft comes around, if Team A’s pick falls in the top 10 overall picks, they keep the pick; if not, it goes to Team B. In the scenario where Team A keeps their pick, their pick for the next draft will go to Team B and it will be unprotected (it’s Team B’s no matter where it falls in the first round).

How does the NBA lottery work?

Out of the total 30 NBA teams, 16 teams go to the playoffs while 14 teams miss out. These 14 teams are considered “lottery” teams, which means they get to participate in the lottery draft to have a chance at the first 4 overall draft picks and decide the rest of the draft order. The lottery has specific odds based on team records; in short, the lottery team with the best record has the lowest odds to land the first overall pick and vice versa. The odds are determined by having 1,000 different combinations; the 3 worst teams get 140 combinations each (so 14.0% odds each), and progressively decreases until the best team has only 5 combinations (0.5% odds).

The process itself involves 14 ping-pong balls, each numbered 1-14. They are placed in a lottery machine, and then 4 balls are removed, which creates a number combination (ex: 6-4-1-5). Whichever team owns that combination now has the first overall draft pick. The process is repeated 3 more times for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th overall picks respectively. The remaining lottery picks are then distributed in order of worst record to best from the remaining teams (therefore, 5th pick goes to the worst team remaining, and 14th pick goes to best team remaining).

The lottery process is quite secretive, as it is not shown on live TV, and only a select few are in attendance for when the balls are picked. While the fact that it is not aired live is fuel for conspiracy, the NBA maintains the legitimacy of the process, as there is always an independent auditor (in this case, reputable firm Ernst & Young) to ensure the lottery draft is carried out correctly. Concerns about teams “tanking” for the first draft pick as well concerns regarding the predictability of the lottery led to the NBA retooling the lottery process in 2019 to address these concerns.

The NBA Draft is incredibly important to an organization’s success, and managing future draft picks is essential when considering the potential value such an asset can have in the coming years.