How Does the NBA Draft Work?

By Andrew D

April 17, 2022


Many franchises that look to build towards a solid future and elite status have one night looming constantly in mind. A night when the combination of good luck and shrewd decisions can change the course of a franchise for years to come. There is so much at stake and tensions run high. That occasion is the NBA draft.

The NBA Draft is actually a series of events. First and foremost there is the NBA Draft Lottery. This is followed by the NBA draft combine. The culmination of these 2 events is on NBA Draft Night where the NBA teams finally get to make their picks.

Since 1947, some kind of draft system has been employed in the NBA. In the early years, teams would keep on selecting players until they were all taken. The NBA Drafts in 1960 and 1968 ran for 21 rounds!

The structure and regulations have been tinkered with and tidied up over the years, but the general principle has remained the same.

Before we delve into the structure and format of the NBA Draft, let’s take a closer look at why it exists in the first place.


In its simplest essence, the NBA Draft exists for one reason. To maintain competitive balance right across the league. Of the 30 teams in the NBA, not all can command the same levels of undying loyalty and major dollar investments.

The NBA is highly focused on creating, promoting, and maintaining a product that is desirable to watch and can create interest and investment in the commercial world. If market forces were allowed to run amok, then the top-tier teams would simply snaffle up all the best players.

The league would be dead as a competitive entity shortly thereafter and only the richest teams would be able to field teams. Let alone compete.

All 30 franchises need a constant stream of new players

To come along and further their growth. The NBA Draft is the fairest way that the league could come up with to distribute those players evenly and fairly across the board.

Players that enter the NBA Draft are those that did not play in the NBA in the previous season. This either refers to international players from other leagues around the world or recently graduated college players from the USA.

All these players then effectively become “rookies” in the league campaign that follows their being chosen in the NBA Draft. All of this takes place before the commencement of free agency.

The eligibility rules state that home-grown players must be no less than 19-years-old and must be at least one year past high school graduation. This means that, since 2006, NBA teams have no longer been allowed to enlist players straight from high school.

Some of the most famous NBA players in history were recruited in that way. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Garnett all joined directly from high school.

Effectively, this means that the NBA Draft is completed before existing league players are eligible to move around and change teams.


The NBA Draft lottery is the essential step before the NBA Draft that pre-determines the order in which the NBA teams will make their selections.

Lottery teams are those that did not make the Playoffs and represent the teams that finished in positions 9-15 in their respective conferences (NBA Play-in notwithstanding – learn more about that in our article – How does the NBA Play-in work?)

This gives us a total of 14 teams in the NBA Draft Lottery. They are represented by 14 ping-pong balls, just as in a standard lottery. The balls are agitated and out they come one-by-one.

The difference here is that the balls don’t actually represent the teams. Each term has a series of random 4-digit numbers allocated to them. 4 balls are picked from the lottery machine and the number created is the one that indicates the winner.

The team with the worst record from the NBA regular season has the most 4-digit combinations. This means that their chance of being the first pick is, therefore, higher, but not guaranteed.

This was done in an attempt to solve the problem of “tanking”

Where teams would deliberately try to lose games in order to gain better Draft picks once they knew they could not realistically reach the NBA Playoffs.

Those 16 teams who did make the NBA Playoffs are the teams who will pick in positions 15-30. The further an NBA team advances in the NBA Playoffs, the lower that pick goes.

So, the 2 NBA Finals teams have to wait until the 29th and 30th pick (depending on who was victorious) If 2 teams are eliminated from the NBA Playoffs at the same time, then the team with the better record gets the higher pick number.


The NBA draft combine is a gathering together of any incoming NBA hopefuls that choose to attend before the NBA Draft itself. This is done so that they can be officially measured for their physical stats. It’s like the ultimate basketball job fair.

Everything from height, weight/body fat percentage, wingspan, hand length/width, and standing reach are recorded. It is also a chance for their prospective NBA teams to meet up with, evaluate them and put them through their paces.

Players are expected to perform all kinds of physical tests and challenges. These tests include bench press, vertical leap/standing vertical, three-quarter sprint, shuttle run, among others.

Depending on the nature of the test, these are performed both with and without the ball. They are also tasked with working in team situations and mini-games.

Finally, a series of interviews are conducted between the franchise representatives and the players. All in all, a rather intense experience for the players that must surely cause a great deal of tension beforehand.

The fact that players can choose whether or not to attend is crucial

Many believe that the Combine may actually be detrimental to their Draft position and do not attend.

Conversely, players who fear that they may not be selected are keen to showcase their talents and prove that they have the necessary physical and mental attributes to succeed. The NBA Draft Combine is their final chance to do so and perhaps sway the minds of any franchises that were sitting on the fence.


On NBA Draft night, the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, NY will again be the location for proceedings. 60 nervous prospects will eventually be selected and join whichever NBA franchise picks them. There are 2 rounds of picks, 30 in each.


Although we explained how the NBA Draft order works, this is where it all goes out of the window. Teams are permitted to trade their Draft order with other teams if they wish.

Draft pick trades are, in fact, extremely common. In 2019, 15 of the 30 first-round picks were traded away. 5 of those trades took place on NBA Draft night itself.

Draft picks can be traded among teams both before and during the NBA Draft. They can be trades just for picks alone, or frequently involve a combination of picks and players.

Between 1980 and 1983, the Cleveland Cavalier’s owner Ted Stepien traded away their top pick 5 times in as many years! This caused much consternation and controversy.

A rule was introduced to prevent this from happening again. The Stepien Rule There are some restrictions, though. The Stepien Rule does not allow teams to trade their first-round NBA Draft pick in consecutive years.

We often find NBA Playoff teams taking lottery picks as part of some trade agreement they have made. Each franchise has its own roster requirements to consider among other things.

There is the salary cap to bear in mind too and any forthcoming deals once free agency starts soon after. For a detailed understanding of that, see our article – When does NBA free agency start?

This all makes for a very entertaining watch on the night itself. It does, however, make somewhat of a mockery of the Draft lottery system as it stands.


Each stated franchise is given five minutes on the clock to make their first-round picks, or arrange a side deal with any willing parties. The second round teams then have two minutes on the clock to make their Draft picks. The NBA Draft is officially completed once the 60th pick of the night is made.

NBA draft night is a rather tense affair from the players’ viewpoint. Very few of them enter the Draft already knowing that they will be picked. The lottery picks are the exception. Teams usually snap up the best available talent that remains once those guys have been selected and basketball careers are made or dashed in a few hectic, nerve-wracking hours.


The NBA Draft usually takes place in the third week of June. This is roughly a month after the NBA Draft Lottery and 1-2 weeks after the Finals are decided.


There is always going to be a huge debate about which is the best Draft class in NBA history.

The 1984 NBA Draft included Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan. To say that was a decent trio might be the worlds’ biggest understatement.

The 1996 NBA Draft included 10 future All-Stars. Three of them took the MVP award. They were: Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, and Allen Iverson.

The 2003 NBA Draft is considered by many people to be the best of the past 20 years. In came LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.

The team here at The Jump Hub can’t agree on which is the best of those three NBA Drafts. Weigh in on our social media platforms and give us your opinion. Or throw any other contenders into the ring…


Who doesn’t love the razzamatazz, drama, and high excitement of NBA Draft Night?

Possibly the players and their families? It must be unbearably tense for them. And the international players are probably scratching their heads and wondering what is going on. But for the rest of us, it’s pure theater.

Clearly, the NBA still has a number of issues to address when it comes to the issue of tanking towards the end of the season. The introduction of the NBA Draft Lottery went some way towards minimising that. The controversial, yet statistically effective, Play-in tournament is another interesting development. For more on that, see our article ‘How does the NBA Play-in work?’


…that the NBA recognizes these issues and attempts to address them. In fact, the whole Draft system is rather forward-thinking if we compare it to other wealthy, high-profile sports like European soccer. There are similarly vast amounts of money swimming around in European soccer leagues but they do not have a Draft system in place.

As a result, the richest teams often become the best teams by virtue of simply buying all the best players. They do have a system of ‘Financial Fair Play’ in place these days but the system of recruitment is based around players and their agents agreeing to contracts with teams. There are no minimum/maximum salaries as we find in the NBA.

European friends are incredulous to learn that the best players in the NBA are usually drafted into the worst teams due to the nature of the system. We still have disparity between teams in the NBA, of course. No system can make all teams equal, Nor would we want it to.

It is not a perfect system but it is one that brings some balance to the NBA Championships. For now, it’s the only one we’ve got.

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