The NBA Draft is a system used where general managers, coaches, etc, select players to add to their respective team. These players may come from college, high school, the foreign market, or anyplace else.

But how does the NBA figure out which teams get to select first, which team gets to select second, and so on? To solve this problem, the NBA has incorporated many different systems.


Early in the league's history, the draft included a system of territorial picks. Before the draft began, a team could give up its first-round selection and select a player from its locality instead. These players usually had a strong local following, and were instrumental in creating the team's fan base.

For example, in 1956, the Boston Celtics used a territorial pick to select Tom Heinsohn. He not only helped create the Celtics fan base, but also helped the Celtics win eight NBA championships in his nine-year career.


After getting rid of the previous system, the NBA adopted a coin flip system in 1966. The last place finishers in each of the league's two divisions would flip a coin in order to determine which team would get the first pick. The remaining teams picked in inverse order of their win-loss records.

One such example was in 1979, when the teams with the worst record in each division were the Chicago Bulls (with a 31-51 record) and the New Orleans Jazz (26-56). The Bulls called "heads" only to see the coin come up "tails," hence giving the first pick to the Jazz. But the Jazz had signed Gail Goodrich from the Los Angeles Lakers and had to compensate them. They did so by giving them three draft picks, including the first rounder which they had won through the coin toss. The Lakers selected Magic Johnson, who led the Lakers to an NBA championship. The New Orleans Jazz also moved to Utah, becoming the Utah Jazz.


This year began the NBA Draft Lottery system. It was used to determine the order of selection for the non-playoff teams for only the first round only—after which, teams pick in inverse order of their records. Each non-playoff team had an equal chance of landing the number one pick.

In 1985, the jackpot prize for the NBA draft lottery was a seven foot center from Georgetown by the name of Patrick Ewing. All seven teams who weren't fortunate enough to make the playoffs had an equal chance to get the number one pick. The ping pong balls bounced in favor of the New York Knicks, who received the first pick. Ewing became their star player for the next 15 years, leading his team to the playoff 13 times.


In October of 1986, the Board of Governors changed the procedures of the Lottery. It would now determine the order of selection for only the first three teams. The remaining teams who didn't make the playoffs would select in inverse order of their regular season records.


What changed in 1989 was that the NBA draft was limited to two rounds. Previously, teams would select players until they ran out of prospects. The 1960 draft had gone 21 rounds. By 1974, it had stabilized to about 10 rounds, and this continued on until 1985. In 1985 the draft had been shortened to seven rounds. But then, in 1989, the draft was shortened to two rounds, which still hold up today. This would allow un-drafted players to try out for any team they wish.


In 1990, the NBA draft began a weighted lottery system, instead of the system where each non playoff team had the same chance. Eleven teams were to be included (due to expansion of the league). The team with the worst record during the regular season would receive 11 chances out of a total of 66, at getting the top pick. The team with the second-worst record would get 10 chances, third worst would get 9 chances, and so on, until the team with the best record among the non-playoff teams, which gets one chance.

For example, the Orlando Magic received the number one overall pick in 1992. With the second-worst record in the league, the Magic had a good chance at the number one pick. With the first pick, they selected Shaquille O'Neal (better known as "Shaq"), who helped the Magic improve their record by twenty wins. But unfortunately, they missed the playoffs. In the 1993 draft, the Magic had the best record among non-playoff teams, so had only one chance out of 66 to land the number one pick. Defying the odds, the Magic received the number one pick yet again. With it, they selected Chris Webber, whom they immediately traded to the Golden State Warriors for the third pick (they received Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway) and three future draft picks.

That year, the Board of Governors modified the draft so that the team with the worst records had a better chance of winning one of the top three picks, and the teams with a better record, had less of a chance. The team with the worst record had its chances increased from 16.7 percent to 25 percent, while the team with the best record had its chances decreased from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent.


Nowadays, the system used is similar to the system previously used, but a little more complicated. Fourteen ping-pong balls, numbered one through fourteen, are placed in a drum. There are 1,001 possible combinations when four balls are drawn, without regard to their order of selection. Before the actual drawing occurs, 1,000 combinations are assigned to the teams participating in the Lottery based on their regular season record. Four balls are drawn, and the team with that combination will win the number one pick. The four balls are then placed back in the drum, after which the process is repeated to determine the second and third picks. If the one combination which hasn't been assigned is drawn, then the balls are simply just drawn again.

The amount of teams participating in the Draft increased from eleven to thirteen in October of 1995, to account for the addition of the two expansion teams (the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies). The team with the worst record still had a 25 percent chance of winning the first pick, while teams two through six had a slightly reduced chance of winning the first pick. Team seven had the same chance as it had previously, while teams eight through twelve had a slightly increased chance. Team thirteen's chances neither reduced nor increased.

The following is how the first thirteen picks, also known as the "Lottery Picks," have gone since 1990. It's the name of the player, followed by the team which selected him.

  1. Yao Ming, Houston Rockets
  2. Jay Williams, Chicago Bulls
  3. Mike Dunleavy, Golden State Warriors
  4. Drew Gooden, Memphis Grizzlies
  5. Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Denver Nuggets
  6. Dajuan Wagner, Cleveland Cavaliers
  7. Maybyner Hilario, New York Knicks
  8. Chris Wilcox, Los Angeles Clippers
  9. Amare Stoudemire, Phoenix Suns
  10. Caron Butler, Miami Heat
  11. Jared Jeffries, Washington Wizards
  12. Melvin Ely, Los Angeles Clippers
  13. Marcus Haislip, Milwaukee Bucks

  1. Kwame Brown, Washington Wizards
  2. Tyson Chandler, Los Angeles Clippers
  3. Pau Gasol, Atlanta Hawks
  4. Eddy Curry, Chicago Bulls
  5. Jason Richardson, Golden State Warriors
  6. Shane Battier, Memphis Grizzlies
  7. Eddie Griffin, New Jersey Nets
  8. DeSagana Diop, Cleveland Cavaliers
  9. Rodney White, Detroit Pistons
  10. Joe Johnson, Boston Celtics
  11. Kedrick Brown, Boston Celtics
  12. Vladimir Radmanovic, Seattle Supersonics
  13. Richard Jefferson, Houston Rockets

  1. Kenyon Martin, New Jersey Nets
  2. Stromile Swift, Vancouver Grizzlies
  3. Darius Miles, Los Angeles Clippers
  4. Marcus Fizer, Chicago Bulls
  5. Mike Miller, Orlando Magic
  6. DerMarr Johnson, Atlanta Hawks
  7. Chris Mihm, Chicago Bulls
  8. Jamal Crawford, Cleveland Cavaliers
  9. Joel Pryzbilla, Houston Rockets
  10. Keyon Dooling, Orlando Magic
  11. Jerome Moiso, Boston Celtics
  12. Etan Thomas, Dallas Mavericks
  13. Courtney Alexander, Orlando Magic

  1. Elton Brand, Chicago Bulls
  2. Steve Francis, Vancouver Grizzlies
  3. Baron Davis, Charlotte Hornets
  4. Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Clippers
  5. Jonathan Bender, Toronto Raptors
  6. Wally Szczerbiak, Minnesota Timberwolves
  7. Richard Hamilton, Washington Wizards
  8. Andre Miller, Cleveland Cavaliers
  9. Shawn Marion, Phoenix Suns
  10. Jason Terry, Atlanta Hawks
  11. Trajan Langdon, Cleveland Cavaliers
  12. Aleksandar Radojevic, Toronto Raptors
  13. Corey Maggette, Seattle Supersonics

  1. Michael Olowokandi, Los Angeles Clippers
  2. Mike Bibby, Vancouver Grizzlies
  3. Raef LaFrentz, Denver Nuggets
  4. Antawn Jamison, Toronto Raptors
  5. Vince Carter, Golden State Warriors
  6. Robert Traylor, Dallas Mavericks
  7. Jason Williams, Sacramento Kings
  8. Larry Hughes, Philadelphia 76ers
  9. Dirk Nowitzki, Milwaukee Bucks
  10. Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
  11. Bonzi Wells, Detroit Pistons
  12. Michael Doleac, Orlando Magic
  13. Keon Clark, Orlando Magic

  1. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
  2. Keith Van Horn, Philadelphia 76ers
  3. Chauncey Billups, Boston Celtics
  4. Antonio Daniels, Vancouver Grizzlies
  5. Tony Battie, Denver Nuggets
  6. Ron Mercer, Boston Celtics
  7. Tim Thomas, New Jersey Nets
  8. Adonal Foyle, Golden State Warriors
  9. Tracy McGrady, Toronto Raptors
  10. Danny Fortson, Milwaukee Bucks
  11. Olivier SaintJean, Sacramento Kings
  12. Austin Croshere, Indiana Pacers
  13. Derek Anderson, Cleveland Cavaliers

  1. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers
  2. Marcus Camby, Toronto Raptors
  3. Shareef Abdur Rahim, Vancouver Grizzlies
  4. Stephon Marbury, Milwaukee Bucks
  5. Ray Allen, Minnesota Timberwolves
  6. Antoine Walker, Boston Celtics
  7. Lorenzen Wright, Los Angeles Clippers
  8. Kerry Kittles, New Jersey Nets
  9. Samaki Walker, Dallas Mavericks
  10. Erick Dampier, Indiana Pacers
  11. Todd Fuller, Golden State Warriors
  12. Vitaly Potapenko, Cleveland Cavaliers
  13. Kobe Bryant, Charlotte Hornets

  1. Joe Smith, Golden State Warriors
  2. Antonio McDyess, Los Angeles Clippers
  3. Jerry Stackhouse, Philadelphia 76ers
  4. Rasheed Wallace, Washington Bullets
  5. Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves
  6. Bryant Reeves, Vancouver Grizzlies
  7. Damon Stoudamire, Toronto Raptors
  8. Shawn Respert, Portland Trailblazers
  9. Ed O'Bannon, New Jersey Nets
  10. Kurt Thomas, Miami Heat
  11. Gary Trent, Milwaukee Bucks
  12. Cherokee Parks, Dallas Mavericks
  13. Corliss Williamson, Sacramento Kings

  1. Glenn Robinson, Milwaukee Bucks
  2. Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks
  3. Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons
  4. Donyell Marshall, Minnesota Timberwolves
  5. Juwan Howard, Washington Bullets
  6. Sharone Wright, Philadelphia 76ers
  7. Lamond Murray, Los Angeles Clippers
  8. Brian Grant, Sacramento Kings
  9. Eric Montross, Boston Celtics
  10. Eddie Jones, Los Angeles Lakers
  11. Carlos Rogers, Seattle Supersonics
  12. Khalid Reeves, Miami Heat
  13. Jalen Rose, Denver Nuggets

  1. Chris Webber, Orlando Magic
  2. Shawn Bradley, Philadelphia 76ers
  3. Anfernee Hardaway, Golden State Warriors
  4. Jamal Mashburn, Dallas Mavericks
  5. Isaiah Rider, Minnesota Timberwolves
  6. Calbert Cheaney, Washington Bullets
  7. Bobby Hurley, Sacramento Kings
  8. Vin Baker, Milwaukee Bucks
  9. Rodney Rogers, Denver Nuggets
  10. Lindsey Hunter, Detroit Pistons
  11. Allan Houston, Detroit Pistons
  12. George Lynch, Los Angeles Lakers
  13. Terry Dehere, Los Angeles Clippers

  1. Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando Magic
  2. Alonzo Mourning, Charlotte Hornets
  3. Christian Laettner, Minnesota Timberwolves
  4. Jim Jackson, Dallas Mavericks
  5. LaPhonso Ellis, Denver Nuggets
  6. Tom Gugliotta, Washington Bullets
  7. Walt Williams, Sacramento Kings
  8. Todd Day, Milwaukee Bucks
  9. Clarence Weatherspoon, Philadelphia 76ers
  10. Adam Keefe, Atlanta Hawks
  11. Robert Horry, Houston Rockets
  12. Harold Miner, Miami Heat
  13. Bryant Stith, Denver Nuggets

  1. Larry Johnson, Charlotte Hornets
  2. Kenny Anderson, New Jersey Nets
  3. Billy Owens, Sacramento Kings
  4. Dikembe Mutombo, Denver Nuggets
  5. Steve Smith, Miami Heat
  6. Doug Smith, Dallas Mavericks
  7. Luc Longley, Minnesota Timberwolves
  8. Mark Macon, Denver Nuggets
  9. Stacey Augmon, Atlanta Hawks
  10. Brian Williams, Orlando Magic
  11. Terrell Brandon, Cleveland Cavaliers
  12. Greg Anthony, New York Knicks
  13. Dale Davis, Indiana Pacers

  1. Derrick Coleman, New Jersey Nets
  2. Gary Payton, Seattle Supersonics
  3. Chris Jackson, Denver Nuggets
  4. Dennis Scott, Orlando Magic
  5. Kendall Gill, Charlotte Hornets
  6. Felton Spencer, Minnesota Timberwolves
  7. Lionel Simmons, Sacramento Kings
  8. Bo Kimble, Los Angeles Clippers
  9. Willie Burton, Miami Heat
  10. Rumeal Robinson, Atlanta Hawks
  11. Tyrone Hill, Golden State Warriors
  12. Alec Kessler, Houston Rockets
  13. Loy Vaught, Los Angeles Clippers
Information gathered from

NBA Draft picks since the coin flip system was introduced in 1966. An "R" after the player's name denotes that he was also chosen as the recipient of the NBA Rookie of the Year Award.

No. 1 NBA Draft Choices

*only foreigner (non-American) to be selected first in the draft in NBA history
** first high-schooler to be chosen with the top draft pick in NBA history (from Glynn Academy HS)

The NBA Draft is the way that National Basketball Association NBA teams get to select new players in a way that is somewhat fair. The draft is proceeded by a lottery, where the teams with the lowest records are assigned a place in the draft. The rules for how this is done exactly change occasionally. But basically, the teams with the worst records get to pick first, a fairly simple negative feedback loop. Currently, the NBA lottery goes two rounds, meaning sixty players will be picked each year. These players can be picked from a variety of sources: the NBA's minor league, foreign professional leagues, foreign amateur leagues, and players just out of high school. But for the most part, players in the NBA draft will be players of college basketball, specifically of programs in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The inputs and the outputs of the NBA draft are pretty simple. There are around 300 NCAA Division I basketball programs in the United States, which means that there are 1500 starters at any given time in these programs. If we look at one-fourth of them "graduating" every year, that gives us around 400 basketball players who might be interested in the NBA draft. That is over 6 times as many players as can go into the draft, but most of these basketball programs are not that successful. Every year, the NCAA holds a tournament colloquially known as "March Madness" to determine the championship team. There are 64 teams in the tournament, which fits nicely with the numbers of the NBA draft. On average, we could look at the NBA draft as selecting one player from each of the teams that goes into the NCAA tournament. Of course, this is not the case: as mentioned, players come to the NBA from other sources, and some players whose teams don't get into the tournament are still drafted. The most successful teams might have multiple players drafted. But a good way to look at the NBA draft is that it will be selecting one or two players from the 10 or 20% of the best teams in college basketball, a year. Or put another way, around 4% of players who start in a NCAA game will be drafted, or a little bit less than 2% of all NCAA basketball players will be drafted.

This is some pretty stringent competition.

As for the outputs of the draft: every team in the NBA has 12 players on their active list, and 15 counting reserves for injured players. There are currently 30 teams in the NBA, meaning that there are either 360 players or 450 players active in the NBA at any given time, depending on how you count. Since the draft adds 60 players to this pool every year, it thus follows that the NBA has an average active lifespan of players of either 6 or 7 years. As with many forms of mortality, this is skewed against the younger players: once a player establishes himself in the NBA, a career of 10 or 12 years is fairly normal. Most of the attrition comes from players who are drafted and never adjust to the NBA, due to injuries or difficulty in transitioning to professional basketball.

In other words, the NBA draft is a way to select the best basketball players in both the United States and the world, and out of the pool of available players, which probably numbers between 3-5000 at any time, only 60 will be selected. And because established players in the NBA can have rather long lifespans in the sport, many, if not most of those 60 players will have cursory careers, and some will never play at all. It is a rather viscous sieve, but very rewarding for the two dozen or so players a year who do manage to make it as core NBA players.

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