Examining the Possibility of Expanding the NBA Draft

Expanding the draft would likely be appealing to Adam Silver and the NBA but college coaches like John Calipari are already petitioning against it.
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In the latest sign that the NBA’s G League and Division I men’s college basketball could become rivals in the 2020s, two prominent college coaches recently opined on the possibility of the NBA expanding the annual NBA draft from two rounds to three or more rounds.

On Wednesday, Kentucky coach John Calipari expressed that those in favor of an expanded NBA draft “do not care about college basketball” or are “trying to ruin college basketball.” Calipari, who coached in the NBA from 1996 to 2000, insists that “more rounds [will] get kids to go to the G League.” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, meanwhile, envisions the NBA and its franchises’ owners as gravitating towards the G League as a means of increasing revenue and developing talent in pro-style systems. He also warns that college basketball must be more adaptive in light of the possibility of increased competition from the G League. “We cannot keep our heads in the sands,” Krzyzewski reflected. “We are very reactionary.”

To be clear, the NBA has not announced a plan or even signaled desire to expand the NBA draft. Last year, commissioner Adam Silver identified draft expansion as a possible goal, but he emphasized that such discussions were “very, very preliminary.”

Still, an expanded draft would likely be appealing to the NBA. More rounds could be used to populate the G League and increase its talent pool. A superior G League would, in turn, attract more fans and viewers to G League games. Those games have been televised and streamed through a variety of methods, including through Facebook Live, NBA TV, ESPN+ ESPNU and Twitch. Should the G League improve its talent pool, their local fan bases would probably grow. Likewise, if G league games featured more talented and skilled players, the NBA would probably be able to generate more revenue through broadcasting rights fees and ticket sales.

A superior G League product might also attract more experienced Americans players who would normally choose to earn higher salaries by playing professionally in Europe, Asia or South America. On that front, the G League recently raised basic salaries to $35,000 while adding two-way contracts where players can earn as much as $385,000.

An expanded NBA draft could lead the G League to become more like Baseball’s farm system. Prospects might take more time to develop but they would learn from coaching philosophies that are designed and implemented by the parent club.

A superior G League would not portend the demise of Division I men’s basketball, either. College teams would continue to enjoy loyal fans who are generally more interested in their team’s success than in individual player performances. College basketball also has perhaps the ideal postseason format with March Madness. College hoops aren’t going away anytime soon.

Still, quality of talent isn’t irrelevant. Fewer stars in college basketball would likely have a negative impact on both the play and marketability of Division I college hoops. That very point was made clear in the comments voiced by Calipari and Krzyzewski.

An expanded NBA draft, like a new eligibility rule, must be collectively bargained

Any change to the NBA’s draft procedure would need to be negotiated with the National Basketball Players’ Association. The rules for the draft are contained in Article X of the collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA runs through the 2023-24 season, with a mutual opt-out clause after the 2022-23 season. Although existing CBAs can be amended by management and labor before they expire, significant changes are usually reserved for future CBAs.

There is already talk of changes to Article X in the next CBA. As reported earlier this year, the NBA and NBPA are poised to change their controversial eligibility rule. Since 2006, an American player can only become draft eligible if he is at least 19 years old and at least one NBA season elapses from when he graduated from high school or, if he didn’t graduate, when he would have graduated.

Prior to 2006, players could “jump” straight from high school to the NBA. A number of prep-to-pro players would go on to become NBA stars. LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, Lou Williams, Rashard Lewis, Jermaine O’Neal, Tyson Chandler and Amar’e Stoudemire are among them.

A return to the previous eligibility rule would mean that some high school players who would have become “one-and-dones” in college instead go directly to the NBA. For Calipari and other college coaches who thrive with one-and-dones, they would need to adjust their recruiting methods.

It’s worth noting that a player skipping college or leaving college before graduating does not foreclose the possibility of that player matriculating to college at a later date. The greatest basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan, left UNC early for the NBA but later returned to complete his college degree. While a player can’t turn pro and play college basketball again, he can return to school as a more traditional student. Particularly with the growth of online education, “skipping college” need not be permanent.

More pro opportunities for high school basketball players

Much has changed in pro basketball since the NBA draft eligibility rule rose in 2006. The professional marketplace for basketball talent has grown and become more competitive. It is no longer an exceptional decision for an American player to decline to attend college and instead sign a professional contract with a team in another country.

For instance, LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton—both of whom are expected to be selected in the first round of the 2020 NBA draft—are spending what would have been their freshmen year of college getting paid to play in Australia’s National Basketball League (as I explain in another story, Ball’s eligibility to play college hoops was uncertain). The two are pursuing a path taken by others before them, including Brandon Jennings, Jeremy Tyler and Emmanuel Mudiay.

Oklahoma Thunder forward Darius Bazley took a different, but still unconventional path, when the then-high school hoops star signed an internship contract with New Balance last year. The contract will pay Bazley, a first-round pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, between $1 million and $14 million depending on how his NBA career plays out.

Meanwhile, the NBA has made the G League a more attractive option for players out of high school. Starting this upcoming season, the G League will offer elite prospects who are at least 18 years old, but who are not yet ineligible for the NBA draft, “select contracts.” These contracts will cover the five-moth G League season, during which time a player will be paid $125,000. He will also be provided health care, training on financial literacy, advice on post-career planning and other employment benefits.

Players in the G League are also not bound by NCAA amateurism rules. They can sign endorsement contracts and be paid to license their names, images and likenesses (NIL) in various products and services. While NCAA rules on NIL rights might be forced to change under the law, no such changes are imminent.

That said, a player might find spending a year at a top college program to be more enhancing of his marketability than would be obtained by playing for a G League team. Consider how many times Zion Williamson was on national TV during his lone season at Duke. He became a national celebrity while in college. Of course, if G League games rose in quality and become worthy of national TV broadcasts, that calculus for a player would change as well.

The NBA could face resistance in trying to expand the draft

The NBA draft hasn’t always used two rounds. Prior to 1989, the number of rounds ranged from three to 21. There were also fewer franchises back then, so each round featured fewer players. To that point, in 1988, there were three rounds and 75 total selections; in 2019, there were two rounds and 60 selections. Also, for a nine-year period from 1967 to 1976, the NBA competed with the American Basketball Association, which eventually merged with the NBA. The use of numerous draft selections helped the NBA assert control over amateur players who were also drafted by ABA teams.

In the abstract, an amateur player would be better off without a draft. His agent could induce multiple teams to compete for his services, with each team feeling compelled to raise their offer in order to match competing offers. This player could also identify which NBA team offers him the best opportunity. In contrast, with a draft, the player’s career is significantly altered by the circumstances of the team that happens to draft him.

While amateur players might prefer there be no draft, a draft goes to the heart of competitiveness in the NBA. Namely, it helps the league ensure that each team has a reasonable chance to compete. If no draft existed, certain teams—such as those in cities that are most attractive to players or those with legendary players on the roster—would gain a decisive advantage in signing top amateur players.

Assume, for a moment, that there was no draft in 2019. A team like the Los Angeles Lakers might have enjoyed a significant edge in recruiting Williamson out of Duke. Afterall, Los Angeles would have been appealing to Williamson in terms of endorsement opportunities. Plus, Williamson would have joined LeBron James and Anthony Davis to constitute a formidable trio.

Or maybe Williamson would have been deterred by the prospect of joining a team in California, which has the highest state income tax in the land. Maybe a team in Florida or Texas, neither of which has a state income tax, would have been more enticing. Or maybe Williamson would have preferred to play for the New York Knicks, where he would have been a superstar in the Big Apple and the focal point of the franchise rather than its third best player. Who knows? The larger point is that Williamson would have held the cards and been in control of his fate. Instead, Williamson was drafted by the New Orleans Pelicans. His only choice was to sign with the Pelicans or sit out a year and enter the 2020 draft.

A world without an NBA draft might benefit some players but it would harm certain franchises and make it harder for them to compete on a level playing field. A draft that awards selections based largely on inverse order of regular season record attempts to distribute the best talent to the weakest teams. In a world without a draft, those teams might consistently fail to sign top amateurs. If so, their fan bases could scatter and their TV ratings might dwindle. The league’s business model is premised on revenue generation from each franchise; without such generation, it would be more difficult for the league to negotiate lucrative national TV contracts, revenue from which is shared with the players in the form of higher salary caps and higher salaries. This is a key reason for the NBA salary cap, anti-tampering rules and other restrictions on competition. These restrictions attempt to guarantee that each franchise has a chance for success (even if some franchises tend to squander those chances).

An expanded draft would clearly increase the NBA’s ability to control labor. For that reason, the NBPA would probably demand “something” in return for additional draft rounds. Perhaps the next CBA might guarantee salaries for players drafted in the second round (like those drafted in the first round) or offer higher minimum salaries for second round draft picks. The current minimum NBA salary is hardly chump change—$898,310 for rookies in the 2019-20 season. However, the lack of automatic guarantees for second round picks (though most second round picks are able to negotiate partial guarantees) coupled with the fact that some second round picks will sign two-way contracts instead of NBA contracts and some won’t make it to the NBA means that some won’t earn anywhere near that amount.

In short, don’t expect the NBA draft to expand over the next few seasons, but after then, there’s a decent chance it will happen. The G League—and its players—would be the main beneficiaries.

Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.