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The Long Weird History of the NBA Draft

Every June fans line up waiting to see who their favorite NBA team will select in the draft. In today's NBA it is a pretty straight forward process. Each team normally has 1 pick in the first round, and 1 pick in the second round based on their record and maybe a little luck in the draft lottery. But in the long history of the NBA draft things have not always been that simple. Before the league started to curtail the draft in 1988 the rounds could go on and on indefinitely if they wanted them too. For example the 1960 draft had 21 rounds and the 1984 draft seen 228 players drafted.

The process for the draft became cumbersome and the majority of the players selected after round three never played in the NBA. Several of the early drafts did not keep accurate records so its unknown which players went where in the draft, each team is just listed as having selected players listed in an alphabetical record. Basketball betting tips for the experts suggest that most of these players never even knew where they were drafted and the majority of them did not care as they planned to focus on other endeavors rather than the NBA.

Than there was the territorial picks. For a time in the NBA a team was allowed to forfeit their first round pick to select a local product that the league thought would help boost attendance to the games. While it was true that these picks did help boost attendance and fan interest, it was several taken advantage of as several really good teams got better by using giving up their late first round pick to get a superstar. There was a total of 23 territorial picks made in NBA history between 1949 and 1965 and 13 of them are in the hall-of-fame and two others were all-stars. Teams had a better chance of landing a hall-of-fame player than they did a bust at nearly 2-1 odds.

The Philadelphia Warriors were particularly keen on using the territorial pick process and some said cheated the system in 1959 when they selected Kansas product Wilt Chamberlain with a pick. The Warriors argued that Chamberlain was eligible because he was born in Philadelphia and the NBA agreed with them. The Warriors also used the territorial pick process to select hall-of-fame players Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, Guy Rodgers, and of course Chamberlain. In total the Warriors used the pick seven times between 1950 and 1959.

As the league grew and disputes among teams of who had what territory sprang up the NBA got rid of the process. Losing the territorial pick concept helped the NBA diversify its talent and allowed more teams to get superstar players. Could you image the Hornets having a first shot at every Duke and North Carolina player coming out of college, or Cavaliers getting every Kentucky product? It would dilute the league and make it unwatchable.

As more teams entered the NBA the draft became more and more important and it grew rapidly. In 1947 there was 80 players selected, and that number would grow rapidly until 1970 when 239 players were drafted.

There was no formal rules about how many picks a team had or what round the draft ended in, teams would just keep drafting until they got tired of drafting. Most teams would drop out of the draft at ten rounds, but some teams would keep going alternating between the teams that were left until everyone was done drafting. Several times one team would be all that was making a pick in a particular round.

The first limit to be imposed on the NBA draft was done in 1974 to limit the draft to just 10 rounds. One reason for this is because the later rounds of the draft became pretty ridculas with teams drafting celebrities, ball boys and in one occasion a team attempted to select House of Representatives Minority leader Gerald Ford. The League would not allow the unnamed team to draft Ford, who was a stellar basketball player and likely had no intentions of ever player in the NBA, but the NBA did allow teams to draft other famous athletes like Carl Lewis, Bruce Jenner, and Dave Winfield.

With Lewis, Jenner, and Winfield and even Ford, these guys were world class athletes and Lewis and Winfield at least played basketball so the picks were not out there. Two dubious selections where made by the Hawks and Sixers. The Hawks selected GM Pat Williams newborn baby in 1984 and the Sixers selected a pharmacist and fried of the owner, a 47 year old named Norman Horvitz.

Sometimes teams drafted athletes in other sports with the intentions of trying to woe them to the NBA. This happened with Tony Gwynn and Danny Ainge. Gwynn was selected by both the Padres and the Clippers on the same day, but chose to play baseball instead. Ainge originally joined the Bluejays organization but would eventually chose the Celtics in the NBA and go on to have a lengthy career in the NBA as a player, coach and general manager. These picks are not usually considered to be too crazy as the teams had good intentions of using them. Other crazy picks by NBA teams continued even after limited the rounds to just 10. The New Orleans Jazz drafted a female player named Lusia Harris in the 7th round of the 1977 draft.

Fan interest in the draft was non existent as well. Nobody cared beyond the first two picks for each team and many players drafted beyond the third round never even bothered to show up to the teams and started their careers elsewhere.

What really started to bring and end to the 10 round drafts was the collective bargaining agreement. Players wanted to have more control over their free agency and if a team had a drafted players rights they could prevent them from signing at a more adventitious location.

In 1985 the league announced that it would be slowly phasing out the 10 round draft starting in 1987. However, the 1987 draft went the full 10 rounds and it was not until 1988 that the draft was cut to just three rounds. The three rounds were cut even further in 1989 to just the two that we see today.

The huge 10 plus round drafts were really inefficient for the NBA. Few players drafted beyond the 60th pick even played in the NBA and the chances that one of them become a star was next to zilch. The highest drafted player in NBA history was Dale Wilkinson who was selected by the Phoenix Suns in 1982 with the 221st pick overall. Wilkinson played 12 games in the 1984-85 between the Pistons and the Clippers.

Only 132 players in NBA history that were selected with the 100th pick or higher ended up playing in the NBA. Only a handful had what would be considered a good NBA career. Some notables from this group of players are Artis Gilmore, Randy Smith, Dan Issell, and Ron Boone. While there were some notable hits, the misses way outnumber the hits.

Cutting the draft down to just 2 rounds has lead to a much more marketable draft and has forced teams to draft better. Today millions of people watch both rounds of the NBA draft on prime time TV. The NFL does well during the first round but after that only die hards pay attention. The MLB draft is not even on prime time. In the end it made a better product for the fans and the league as a whole.