The first NBA draft stands as a defining moment in the history of professional basketball, marking the inception of a revolutionary system that would shape the landscape of the sport for decades to come. This article explores the history of the NBA draft, tracing its beginnings to the years immediately after World War II and underlining its importance to the development of the NBA as we know it today.
When Was the First Ever NBA Draft?
The inaugural NBA Draft took place on July 1, 1947, at the Commodore Hotel in Detroit, Michigan, when the league was still called the Basketball Association of America (BAA). Ten teams participated in the draft, with each team having the opportunity to select players in a predetermined order.
The Pittsburgh Ironmen had the first overall pick, but interestingly, their pick never played in the BAA but opted for a coaching career in Texas. Several players in the draft also never appeared in a BAA game, such as the no. 4 pick Walt Dropo. Dropo played major league baseball instead and ended up playing 13 seasons in the MLB. It was also in this draft that Wataru Misaka, an American of Japanese descent, was selected. Misaka became the first non-white person to play modern pro basketball.
The draft not only served as a platform for teams to acquire talented players but also generated significant media attention and fan engagement, sparking interest and anticipation for the future of professional basketball. Little did anyone know at the time that this momentous event would lay the groundwork for the NBA’s transformation into the global phenomenon it is today, setting the stage for countless legendary careers and shaping the landscape of the sport for generations to come.
Who Was the First NBA Player Ever Drafted?
So, who did the Pittsburgh Ironmen select in the first NBA draft in 1947? It was Clifton McNeely from the Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, Texas. McNeely had an outstanding college career, holding the school records for most points and free throws in a single season for 62 years. However, he was not interested in playing for the Ironment and pursued a high school coaching career instead.
How is the First Pick Decided in the NBA Draft?
In NBA Draft history, deciding who goes to pick first changed over the years. Here’s how it went regarding how the first overall pick was decided in the draft and how it currently goes:
- From the NBA’s inception until 1965, there were such things as territorial picks. The draft had already been instituted in 1947, but according to the rule on territorial picks, teams could forfeit their first-round selection and draft any player who played in colleges and universities within a 50-mile radius of its home arena. A prime example of a territorial pick was Oscar Robertson. The Big O played college ball at the University of Cincinnati and was a territorial pick of the Cincinnati Royals in 1960.
- The territorial picks were abolished by 1966. To determine which team picks first overall, the NBA introduced the good ol’ coin flip system between the worst teams of each conference. The winner gets to pick first, and the loser chooses second. This system was in place until 1984.
- The NBA figured a change in the system should be in the offing after receiving accusations that teams deliberately lost games to “secure” the worst record. This led to the introduction of the lottery system. The first lottery system was putting all the envelopes of the 14 non-playoff teams in a hopper and picking them out one by one. The envelope system became a highly criticized method and was replaced by the weighted lottery system in 1990.
- The weighted lottery system is currently used in the draft lottery but has undergone many revisions. When this method was first used, the team with the worst record received 11 out of 66 chances to win the lottery, the second-worst 10 out of 66, and so on. This means the worst non-playoff team has a 16.7% chance of winning the lottery. It was then increased to 25%, while the best non-playoff team’s chances were reduced from 1.5% to 0.5%.
- Since 2019, the three worst teams in the league all got a 14% chance of winning the lottery.
Top 5 NBA Draft Classes in History
While it’s true that the NBA Draft potentially gives teams a much-needed boost in terms of improvement, every NBA draft class is not created equal. Some are just better than others, and there are years when the well of talent just dried up. One of the worst draft classes is the 2000 class, while perhaps one of the most underrated is the 1950 NBA Draft. The latter produced six Hall of Famer, including Paul Arizin and Bob Cousy.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are years when talent grew on trees, producing All-Star after All-Star. Which are the top 5 NBA Draft classes in history?
1. 1996 NBA Draft Class
In terms of depth, it’s hard to top the 1996 class. Close your eyes and pick anyone in the top 20, and you got a 50% chance of landing at least a one-time All-Star. This class got a two-time MVP in Steve Nash, a cultural icon and a one-time MVP in Allen Iverson, and a legit top-10 player of all time in Kobe Bryant. In the first round, teams got Stephon Marbury, Peja Stojakovic, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Antoine Walker, Ray Allen, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Jermaine O’Neal.
2. 1984 NBA Draft Class
It’s not as deep as the 1996 class, but if you got Michael Jordan in there, it should be at or near the top. Jordan wasn’t even the first overall pick; that distinction belonged to “The Dream” Hakeem Olajuwon. Also in the class are Hall of Famers Charles Barkley and John Stockton and one-time All-Stars Otis Thorpe, Kevin Willis, and Alvin Robertson.
3. 2003 NBA Draft Class
Speaking of top-heavy drafts, the 2003 batch could rival 1984. Four of the top five picks were absolute beasts– LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. After that, it thinned out a bit. Only Chris Kaman, David West, Josh Howard, and Mo Williams made All-Star teams, and every NBA fan knew why Williams made the cut. If he didn’t play with LeBron in Cleveland, his career would be vastly different.
That being said, this NBA Draft class was loaded with solid role players and contributors such as Kirk Hinrich, Nick Collison, Mickael Pietrus, Luke Ridnour, Boris Diaw, Travis Outlaw, Luke Walton, Kyle Korver, and Steve Blake.
4. 1985 NBA Draft Class
The 1985 class produced six Hall of Famers and several All-Stars. Perhaps the most well-known player from the draft is Karl Malone, who is third all-time in total points scored, and Patrick Ewing. This batch’s other HOF inductees were Joe Dumars, Chris Mullin, the late Manute Bol, and European legend Arvydas Sabonis. The 1985 players who made at least one All-Star team were Xavier McDaniel, Detlef Schrempf, Michael Adams, Charles Oakley, AC Green, and Terry Porter.
5. 2018 NBA Draft Class
The jury is obviously still out for this class, but they already got three All-NBA players, four All-Stars, and a horde rotation guys. Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander already made All-NBA teams, while Jaren Jackson, Jr. was named an All-Star in 2023 and the Defensive Player of the Year. 24 out of the 30 first-round picks played significant minutes for their teams in 2022-23, and the No. 1 overall pick, Deandre Ayton, could just be scratching the surface of his potential.
On top of that, at least one of their second-rounders, Jalen Brunson, looks like a future All-Star. A bunch of other second-rounders in the class are legitimate NBA rotation players. For instance, Mitchell Robinson, who was picked No. 36, is the Knicks’ starting center, while guys like Bruce Brown, Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt, DeAnthony Melton, and Shake Milton will probably have decade-long NBA careers.
Wrapping Things Up: The First NBA Draft: How It All Started
The NBA did not invent the drafting system, but they have employed this method of acquiring players almost from the get-go. This paved the way for the NBA Draft as we know it today, an event followed closely by legions of fans worldwide.
The first NBA Draft was held in 1947, one year after the NBA was founded. At the time, the league was still called the BAA (Basketball Association of America). It wasn’t until 1950 that the event was officially known as the NBA Draft after the BAA and the NBL (National Basketball League) merged to form the National Basketball Association on August 3, 1949. That said, the BAA’s fledgling years have always been embraced as part of the NBA’s history.
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