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What is draft pick in basketball?

A draft pick in basketball refers to the process by which NBA teams can select new players entering the league. The NBA holds an annual draft where teams make selections in reverse order of their win-loss record from the previous season. Teams that performed poorly are given the first picks, allowing them to select top talent coming out of college, high school, and internationally. The draft order is determined by a lottery system for the teams that did not make the playoffs.

When and how did the draft begin in the NBA?

The inaugural NBA draft was held in 1947, three years after the basketball association was formed. In the early years, the draft consisted of just a few rounds and teams were allowed to make territorial picks of promising players from local colleges. This gave teams an advantage in selecting hometown talent. The draft was originally created as a way to disperse talent evenly among the league’s teams and prevent a imbalance of power.

Over the years, rules around the draft have evolved. In 1965, the draft expanded to six rounds and teams were no longer allowed territorial picks. More rounds were added over time, reaching as many as 10 rounds in the 1970s. As fewer selected players made active rosters, the draft was reduced to the current two rounds in 1989. In 1995, the lottery system was introduced to determine the top draft picks. This change prevented teams from intentionally losing games at the end of the season to secure the #1 pick.

How does the draft order work?

The teams with the worst regular season records are given the highest probability to secure top draft picks. The lottery determines the first 14 selections, then the remaining teams are slotted 15 through 30 in order of their win-loss record from the previous season. Prior to 2019, the lottery was used to determine the first three picks. Now the odds have been flattened to give the three worst teams equal chances at securing the #1 pick.

The team with the worst record has a 14% chance to land the top pick. Odds then decline for the next teams from 13.4% down to as low as 0.5%. After the lottery selects the first 14 picks, the draft order reverts to win-loss record. For example, the best team that did not make the playoffs would have the 15th pick. Trading draft picks is common in the NBA, so a team’s original draft position may change hands several times.

Draft Lottery Odds

Record Odds
Worst 14.0%
2nd Worst 13.4%
3rd Worst 12.7%
4th Worst 12.0%
5th Worst 11.9%
6th Worst 11.4%
7th Worst 9.0%
8th Worst 7.5%
9th Worst 6.0%
10th Worst 4.5%
11th Worst 3.0%
12th Worst 2.0%
13th Worst 1.5%
14th Worst 1.0%

Who is eligible for the draft?

All players must declare their eligibility for the draft. The main pool of players come from college basketball, usually after completing their sophomore or junior season. International players of at least 22 years old are also eligible. In rare cases, players right out of high school are selected. The “one-and-done” rule requires players to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from their high school graduation.

College players obtain evaluation feedback from an NBA advisory committee before applying for early entry into the draft. The committee helps project likely draft position which can influence a player’s decision to turn pro or continue developing skills at the college level. International players must also declare themselves eligible and submit paperwork to the NBA at least 60 days before the draft.

Notable Draft Eligibility Rules

  • Players are draft eligible one year after high school graduation
  • International players must be at least 22 years old
  • Early entry deadline is 60 days prior to draft
  • Players can withdraw 10 days before the draft

How are draft picks chosen?

On draft night, teams have 5 minutes to make their first round selection and 2 minutes for the second round. The order alternates between rounds, so the team with the first pick in the first round will have the last pick of the second round. This enables each team to have one top and one bottom pick. Teams can trade their picks any time before making a selection.

Strategy goes into draft picks based on team needs at different positions. Teams may draft the top available player regardless of position, or target someone to fill a specific role. Teams have access to extensive scouting reports and player evaluations throughout the entire year leading up to draft night. Some teams will even draft international players with the intention of keeping them overseas to develop before bringing them into the NBA.

Most Common Draft Picks

  1. Freshman and Sophomore College Players
  2. International Players Over 22
  3. Junior College Transfers
  4. European League Players

When and where does the draft take place?

The NBA draft is held at the end of June, about a month after the NBA Finals conclude. It marks the official start of the league’s off-season. From 1947 to 1960, the draft was held in various cities like New York, Boston, Minneapolis, and Detroit. In 1960, the draft became centered in New York City where it was most recently held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn through 2021.

Beginning in 2023, the draft will rotate host cities each year. Major NBA cities like Detroit, Denver, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Houston, Toronto, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, Cleveland and Memphis have been mentioned as potential future draft locations. The event spans two rounds over a couple of hours and is now televised nationally by ESPN as a significant off-season event for NBA fans.

Notable Draft Locations

  • 1947-1960: Rotated Cities
  • 1960-2021: New York City
  • 2023: TBD Rotating Cities

Notable draft picks in NBA history

Some of the most legendary NBA players of all time entered the league as highly coveted draft picks. Here are some of the most famous #1 overall draft picks in NBA history:

  • LeBron James – Drafted 1st in 2003 by Cleveland
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – Drafted 1st in 1969 by Milwaukee
  • Tim Duncan – Drafted 1st in 1997 by San Antonio
  • Shaquille O’Neal – Drafted 1st in 1992 by Orlando
  • Allen Iverson – Drafted 1st in 1996 by Philadelphia

In addition, some of the greatest draft steals as low picks turned Hall of Famers include:

  • Kobe Bryant – Drafted 13th in 1996 by Charlotte, traded to LA Lakers
  • Steve Nash – Drafted 15th in 1996 by Phoenix
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo – Drafted 15th in 2013 by Milwaukee
  • Kawhi Leonard – Drafted 15th in 2011 by Indiana, traded to San Antonio
  • Kevin McHale – Drafted 3rd in 1980 by Boston

Second round draft steals

Most superstar talent is off the board by the end of the first round. But teams can still uncover hidden gems in the second round. Here are some famous players initially selected in round two:

  • Manu Ginobili – Drafted 57th in 1999 by San Antonio
  • Marc Gasol – Drafted 48th in 2007 by LA Lakers, traded to Memphis
  • Nikola Jokic – Drafted 41st in 2014 by Denver
  • Gilbert Arenas – Drafted 31st in 2001 by Golden State
  • Draymond Green – Drafted 35th in 2012 by Golden State

Draft rights and stashing players

When a team drafts a player, they acquire his draft rights. This gives the team exclusive rights to sign, trade, or retain that player over the next year. International players are often “stashed” overseas to develop before making an NBA debut. This allows teams to maintain draft rights without signing them right away.

Notable stashed draft picks include Dragan Bender, Dario Saric, and Nikola Milutinov. Teams may also trade the draft rights of players selected by other teams. For example, the Nets acquired the draft rights to Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers as part of a larger trade package.

Draft Rights Rules

  • Teams have 1 year to sign player to retain draft rights
  • Undrafted players can sign with any team
  • International players can be stashed overseas
  • Draft rights can be traded without signing player

Compensation picks

In addition to their assigned draft position, teams may be awarded compensation picks. This occurs when a team loses a player in free agency and does not receive enough back in return. To offset this loss of talent, the team will get a bonus pick late in the same draft.

The number of compensation picks and which round they fall in are determined by a formula based on the player’s salary compared to the new contract. Teams must also be under the salary cap to qualify. This system helps provide teams continuity after losing major roster pieces.

Notable Compensation Picks

  • Gilbert Arenas – 2001 2nd Round by Golden State (after losing Chris Mullin)
  • Caron Butler – 2002 1st Round by Miami (after losing Anthony Mason)
  • Marc Gasol – 2007 2nd Round by LA Lakers (after losing Lamar Odom)

Two-round mock draft example

Here is an example of how the first two rounds of a hypothetical NBA draft could look:

First Round

  1. Team A – Player A (Freshman Forward)
  2. Team B – Player B (International Guard)
  3. Team C – Player C (Sophomore Center)
  4. Team D – Player D (Freshman Forward)
  5. Team E – Player E (Junior Guard)
  6. Team F – Player F (Freshman Center)
  7. Team G – Player G (International Forward)
  8. Team H – Player H (Sophomore Guard)

Second Round

  1. Team H – Player I (Junior Forward)
  2. Team G – Player J (Senior Guard)
  3. Team F – Player K (Freshman Forward)
  4. Team E – Player L (International Center)
  5. Team D – Player M (Sophomore Guard)
  6. Team C – Player N (Junior Center)
  7. Team B – Player O (Freshman Forward)
  8. Team A – Player P (International Guard)

Draft night trades

Trades are a common occurrence on draft night as teams look to improve their position. Trading veterans for picks or swapping selections are strategic moves by front offices. Some major draft night trades include:

  • In 2017, Philadelphia traded up to get the #1 pick from Boston to select Markelle Fultz.
  • In 2011, Cleveland traded the #4 pick to Minnesota to flip spots and draft Tristan Thompson #4 and Minnesota selected Derrick Williams #2.
  • In 2006, Chicago dealt LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas after Portland selected Aldridge #2 and Charlotte picked Thomas #4.

Teams make these trades because they feel strongly about targeting a specific player they want to select. Trading up ensures they can get their top choice rather than risk missing out by staying put.

Undrafted free agents

Players who are not selected in the draft are considered undrafted free agents. They are free to sign with any team as rookies. Some teams are able to land steals by signing overlooked players who emerge as late bloomers. Notable undrafted players include Ben Wallace, Brad Miller, Wes Matthews, Jeremy Lin, and Fred VanVleet.

Teams scout summer leagues, pre-draft workouts, and college programs thoroughly to find attractive undrafted players to target and sign quickly after the draft ends. Smaller colleges can have overlooked prospects that thrive once in the NBA environment.

Notable Undrafted NBA Players

Player NBA Career
Ben Wallace 4x All-Star, NBA champion
Brad Miller 2x All-Star
Wes Matthews Longtime starter, NBA champion
Jeremy Lin Key role player, NBA champion
Fred VanVleet Key contributor, NBA champion


The NBA draft is an exciting off-season event that distributes the incoming talent across the league. The worst teams get priority to pick first, with the order determined by a draft lottery. Eligible players include college players, international prospects, and in rare cases high schoolers. The draft comprises two rounds where teams alternately make selections.

Knowing the draft procedures and key rules around eligibility, compensation picks, draft rights, and trades is important to follow along and understand draft night. Over its 75+ year history, the draft has introduced some legendary talent into the NBA at the very start of their careers. Players carry the distinction of their draft position and team for the rest of their playing days.