how to become a nba player

Last Updated on August 28, 2023

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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.


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 14th placed 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.

Making it onto a professional basketball team is no easy task, but it’s definitely possible. Whether you’re in middle school, high school, or college, setting your sights on the NBA can only improve your game, so don’t be afraid to dream big.

Part1Playing Your Best

  1. 1Practice shooting from everywhere on the court. Practice shooting at close range, longer range and then 3-point range so you become a dexterous, well-rounded shooter. It can help to work on your shooting ability in continuous three-week rotations, spending one week working on each type of shot. You can never be too precise.[1]
    • Try to maintain a strong shooting average: At least 60% average from the 2-point field goal, 40% from 3-point line and 75% from free throw line.[2]
  2. 2Record video of yourself playing in basketball games. Watching your body move when you make good baskets and when you miss can help you tweak things that are off and improve your game. If you’re in middle or high school, have a friend or parent attend a game to help you record some video footage. If you’re in college, many teams have media assistants who record games for the university. Ask your coach if you can review some game footage.
    • It can be helpful to compile your best footage from these games into a highlight reel for potential NBA recruiters, if you are in college. Edit the video to keep lagging moments to a minimum and keep your video under 5 minute
  3. 3Play with people who are better than you are. You become a stronger and more strategic basketball player when you are challenged by someone whose skills are superior to yours. Elevate your game by regularly scrimmaging other players who push you to be better. If you are in high school and are already the best basketball player you know, try to join a local AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) team to find people whose playing ability really pushes you to a new level.
    • Top AAU teams are tracked by prominent college recruiters and are one of the top ways to get athletic scholarships. These regional teams attract top players from many high schools, so recruiters like to visit them to see a bigger pool of talented kids. Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Josh Smith, for example, all grew up playing AAU basketball. You can find an AAU club in your area at
  4. 4Amp up the difficulty of your drills. Add some intensity to normal running and practice drills by increasing their difficulty. You could try running in sand or dribbling in gravel. Doing this will make your skills sharper and increase your endurance. You can do this whether you’re in middle school, high school or college.
    • Create a plan of what you’re going to do each day to help you become a better player.
  5. 5Start a strength-training regimen to build muscle. Increasing your physical strength will enable you to make shots from farther away and muscle around people who guard you. Start a strength-training regimen with a coach who has an understanding of basketball. They can tailor your exercises to your body and your sport’s specific needs.[5]
    • If you are in high school, contact your school’s athletic director and ask if they can connect you with a lifting coach who has basketball experience.
    • If you are in college, your school likely already has strength-training experts on staff. Contact your athletic administrator to see if you can book some one-on-one sessions with a personal trainer.
  6. 6Increase your endurance by implementing healthy habits. Basketball requires lots of running up and down the court, so it is imperative to maintain your physical condition so you can play your best from the beginning of the game to the end. Staying well hydrated, getting 8 hours of sleep a night, and eating healthy foods will all help your body function optimally and increase your endurance.

Part2Standing Out From the Crowd

  1. 1Find the right coach. If you’re in middle school or high school, your school basketball team likely has a coach already. If you’re not getting much individual attention from that coach though and feel really passionately about improving your basketball game, consider hiring a private coach. A private coach can give you personalized feedback to help you grow more quickly as a player and work on weak areas of your game.
    • can connect you with a private skilled basketball tutor in your area.
    • Working with a coach one-on-one enables you to build a more intimate mentor-mentee relationship. When interviewing potential private coaches, look for someone you have good rapport with and whose accomplishments you respect. It is a bonus if they have connections with influential recruiters.
  2. 2Use every skill you have to your advantage. If you have a playing skill that is particularly strong, make it your own. There are lots of great basketball players, but you’ll need to distinguish yourself from the pack as a specialist in one area if you want to be in the NBA.
    • If you are particularly fast, for example, try to bring speed to every skill you perform on the court. People will notice that this is a unique strength of yours as a player.
  3. 3Be a leader on and off the court. Attitude matters. A basketball team can’t function with a roster full of prima donnas because it is a team sport. Make yourself appealing to prospective recruiters by being a leader and exemplary person both on the off the court. Everyone wants a player who will get along with others and inspire the team to be better.[7]
    • Learning from your mistakes and setting a high standard are two great ways you can step up your leadership game.
    • In the end, it will be your work ethic, commitment, and determination that help you succeed as a basketball player
    • Don’t be afraid to approach your coach at school, whether high school or college, and ask if there’s a way to assume more responsibility on the team.
  4. 4Play as many tournaments as possible. Getting in front of talent scouts from major universities (if you are in high school) and NBA teams (if you are in college) are key to advancing in your basketball career. Attend as many tournaments as possible, as these are places important coaches and influencers go to see and select the next generation of players. The more influential people who see you play the better.[9]
    • If you’re in high school, many AAU leagues participate in regional tournaments your school may not. You don’t need to sign up for anything extra, but the schedule can be grueling on top of your other commitments. If playing in the NBA is really your dream, try to attend as many as you can.
    • If you’re in college, your school basketball team already participates in all the right tournaments. Make the most of recruiting opportunities at regional conference tournaments and March Madness by playing the best you possibly can.

Part3Positioning Yourself for Professional Play

  1. 1Make your high school team so you can get onto a college team. You must be 19 to play in the NBA, and most players are drafted out of college. Excel to the best of your ability in high school and AAU basketball, so you can play at a competitive basketball school such as Duke, Kentucky, or North Carolina. Top NBA recruiters usually only consider players from Division 1 basketball programs.
    • A private basketball coach can help step up your game if you’re not where you need to be.
    • If you’re in high school, good grades will help round you out as a full “package” and make you more attractive as a student-athlete. Think like a recruiter: You want to be an easy sell to whomever they need to make your case to. If you need an academic tutor to bring your grades up, contact your dean’s office. They can connect you with a tutor who will meet your needs.
    • Most high school and college coaches will have a good sense of which recruiters will be at specific games or showcases. Ask your coach if they have any information about this, if you’re hoping to connect with someone.
  2. 2Play internationally if possible. The majority of NBA players who are not selected out of college programs play internationally prior to joining the league. If you attended a D2, D3 university or junior college, this can be a good route into the NBA. International play exposes you to a greater variety of strong players and different basketball styles. If you are an outstanding player but don’t feel like college is for you, it might be helpful to seek out an international basketball league that has fewer age and eligibility requirements than the NBA.
    • has a big international directory to connect you with an agent in your desired country to get started.
  3. 3Hire an agent. If you are at a high level of play but haven’t been approached by a recruiter yet, it may be that you are past college age or just haven’t gotten the right people to see you play. Contact an agent in the U.S. to help facilitate important meetings to get your professional career on track.
    • has a list of the top basketball agents and links to their sports agencies so you can contact them. You can see how many players each agent has placed and where, if you have your heart set on a specific team.

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