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A guide to the NBA Draft

The 2018 NBA Draft is around the corner – taking place at the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn on 21 June. The Draft Lottery and the Draft Combine have now taken place, leaving us waiting in anticipation for what is in store on 21 June.

The draft system works in the interests of balancing the playing field between teams. Those who are the lowest ranked in the standings will receive the best odds of being awarded the number 1 draft pick, which effectively means the opportunity to recruit the best prospect from the draft class. In the NBA, 14 teams participate in the Draft Lottery, which involves the teams that did not qualify for the play offs.

This article aims to discuss the intricacies of the Draft process with a specific focus on the NBA Draft and provide an overview of how the system operates. The draft is a unique feature of American sport but plays a crucial role in granting young athletes a clear route to becoming a professional athlete whilst – at the same time – offering weaker teams a first right to the talent pool, levelling the competition in the league.

Eligibility

The NBA negotiates with its players through a Collective Bargaining Agreement(“CBA”) on how the league will operate as well as agreeing the rules governing player contracts, salaries, trades and the Draft.

The most recent eligibility rules for the NBA Draft are found in article X(1)(b) of the 2017 CBA.

The starting point when considering eligibility is that a player must be at least 19 years old during the calendar year of the Draft and, if not deemed an international player, be one year removed from high school.

(1) Automatically eligible:

To be automatically eligible, the NBA requires an athlete to meet one of the following criteria:

  • They have completed four years of their college eligibility; or
  • If they have graduated from high school in the USA, but did not enrol to a college, four years have passed since graduation; or
  • They have signed a contract with a professional basketball team not in the NBA and have played under the contract.

For an international player to be considered automatically eligible:

  • They are at least 22 during the calendar year of the draft; or
  • They have signed a contract with a professional team outside the NBA but within the USA, and have played under the contract.

(2) Early entry player:

In the USA, it is very common for athletes to play at college level for one year and then (upon turning 19 and being one year removed from high school) enter the NBA Draft. This is known as the ‘one and done’. Many prospects choose this route before becoming a professional player in the NBA as they are not automatically eligible. These athletes must declare their eligibility no later than 60 days before the Draft and it must be accepted by the NBA.

(3) International players:

For a player to fall under this category, they must meet all of the following criteria:

  • Permanently reside outside of the USA for at least three years before the draft;
  • Have never enrolled in a US college or university; and
  • Did not compete in high school in the US.

Why do players have to be one year removed from high school?

 The NBA used to require athletes to wait four years from high school graduation before being drafted into the NBA. A historic Supreme Court ruling – Haywood v National Basketball Association, 1971 – ruled against this requirement.

This opened the door for athletes to join the NBA from high school graduation. High-profile names to do this include Moses Malone, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant.

However, the NBA was keen to change this as it believed players should experience playing against higher-level opposition before joining the NBA (usually achieved through college experience). The 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and its players changed the rules to prevent high school graduates from entering the draft until a year later.

The Draft Lottery

The NBA allocates to each of the 14 teams that did not make the playoffs a number of four digit combinations. The lower your position in the standings, the more combinations you receive. For example, the worst team from this season (Phoenix Suns) received 250 combinations whilst second place (Memphis Grizzlies) received 199 combinations whereas the 14th placed team that only just missed out on the playoffs (Denver Nuggets) received only five combinations. This means that the 14thplaced team only has a 0.5% chance of having the same combinations as those that are ultimately drawn. There are a total of 1,001 possible combinations.

Once the teams have been allocated their combinations, the process for the Lottery can begin. 14 Ping-Pong balls are placed inside the lottery machine and four balls are selected at random. The balls are removed and placed in order, revealing the first four-digit combination. The team with the corresponding combination will be allocated the first draft pick. Thus, the more combinations a team has, the more likely it is to receive the first pick. This process is repeated for the second and third overall picks. The remainder of the picks are allocated based on the reverse order of the season’s standings (not counting those teams in the first three draft picks). This year, Phoenix Suns received the first pick of the draft whilst Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks received the second and third picks, respectively. The Sacramento Kings, with only 53 lottery combinations and a 5.3% chance of receiving the first pick has done very well to receive the second overall pick in the 2018 draft.

After the Lottery, the order for two rounds of 30 picks is complete.

What if the team that receives the first pick also has the corresponding combination for the second or third picks?

A team can only have one pick per round. In this case, the lottery combination for that pick would be repeated to ensure a ‘new’ team receives the pick.

The Draft Combine

Shortly after the Lottery, the NBA hosts a Combine for its Draft prospects. This involves a number of tests for the athletes whilst NBA scouts, coaches and reporters look on. The prospects are measured for height, weight, body fat percentage whilst also recording their bench press, squat, vertical etc. before participating in basketball drills.

This allows prospects to showcase their best skills and talents in the same room as a number of NBA personnel. Not all prospects attend. High profile prospects will sometimes decline their invitation to attend the Combine if they are hoping to avoid injury or because they feel that they do not have anything to prove. Last year, the top three draft picks (Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Jayson Tatum) did not attend.

Can a college player attend the combine but return to college afterwards?

It is after this stage of the process that a prospect who has declared for the NBA Draft can withdraw without losing their college eligibility. At college level, players cannot be represented by an agent nor be deemed a professional. If a player withdraws from the Draft before the college deadline, which is usually shortly after the Combine, they retain college eligibility and can return to their college. Last year eight players who attended the Combine eventually returned to college. However, if a prospect appoints an agent, they lose their college eligibility.

The night of the Draft

There are two rounds consisting of 30 picks each (one pick per team) – so 60 picks in total. After the first round, the order is repeated one more time. The first fourteen picks are determined by the lottery process but after these three picks, the other teams (who did make the play offs) are placed in a reverse order of their regular season record. So the best team of the previous season picks last per round.

The Draft will start. The team with the first pick has five minutes to either make its selection or to trade the pick to another team who must make its selection. This process continues for two rounds in this pre-determined order.

What happened last year?

Last year, the Brooklyn Nets had the worst record of the season and therefore received the most lottery combinations (250), followed by the Phoenix Suns (199), the Lakers (156) and Philadelphia 76ers (119). The Nets received the first pick. The Lakers received the second pick and the Sacramento Kings, despite only having 28 combinations, received the third pick.

The Brooklyn Nets assigned its first pick to Boston Celtics as part of a historic trade deal whilst the Sacramento Kings traded its pick to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Four days before the Draft, the Boston Celtics traded its 2017 number 1 pick for Philadelphia 76ers 2017 number 3 pick as well as a future first round pick. This meant that the 76ers received the first pick, followed by the Lakers and the Celtics.

The 76ers selected Markelle Fultz whilst the Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball and the Celtics drafted Jayson Tatum.

© Copyright 2018 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

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