The NBA Draft returned to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn Thursday night for the seventh time in eight years—the exception was last November’s virtual draft held at ESPN’s Connecticut headquarters.
The very top of the 75th edition of the draft didn’t produce any major surprises, as Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, the consensus best prospect, came off the board first to the Pistons. He was followed by Jalen Green (Rockets) and Evan Mobley (Cavaliers) before the Raptors went slightly off-script with Scottie Barnes at No. 4. The Magic quickly snapped up Jalen Suggs, who is one of the most marketable rookies and landed a dozen endorsement deals before draft day.
Something else predictable for the rookie class: their contracts. Cunningham will almost certainly sign a four-year deal worth an expected $45.6 million, with only the first two years and $20.6 million guaranteed. The rest of the first-round picks will ink deals tied to their draft slot, down to pick No. 30, Santi Aldama, at $10.2 million over four years.
The deals are a long way from the early 1990s, when agents haggled over rookie contracts and player holdouts were an issue. It culminated in 1994, when top pick Glenn Robinson—fresh off averaging 30 points per game at Purdue—did not report to training camp with the Milwaukee Bucks while seeking the league’s first $100 million contract. He eventually settled for a 10-year, $68 million deal a day ahead of the Bucks’ season opener.
Eight months later the NBA had its first work stoppage when owners locked out their players. The subsequent collective bargaining agreement included a cap on rookie salaries, and the first pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, Joe Smith, signed a three-year deal worth $8.4 million. The NHL also implemented a maximum salary for rookies that year.
The NFL followed suit, capping rookie contracts in 2011, and No. 1 pick Cam Newton received $22 million, compared to $78 million Sam Bradford received the previous year. This year’s first pick, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, signed a four-year, $36.8 million agreement, including a $24.1 million signing bonus. MLB introduced penalties in 2012 for teams that sign draftees for amounts outside their “bonus pool.”
The NBA rookie contract scale offers teams a bit of flexibility. They can pay as little as 80% of the scale value and a maximum of 120% under the CBA. Deals are almost always negotiated at 120% of the scale, including for each first-round pick in 2020, when teams were reeling from operating losses caused by the pandemic. The contract figures below represent 120% of the rookie scale.
The scale is tied to the salary cap, which was flat this past season at $109.1 million and was previously projected to be $112 million for the 2021-22 season. The NBA is still sorting through the final accounting of revenue for the 2020-21 season, which will determine next season’s cap figure, but $112 million is still expected to be the threshold, according to multiple NBA insiders.