The first draft (by then part of the BAA, not the NBA) took place in 1947. That summer, 80 players were picked over 10 rounds by 10 teams. It was a very rudimentary process, and the event wasn’t remotely close to the thing it has become nowadays. And it shows: of those 80 players, 45 never played in the BAA/NBA, and 11 more never surpassed the 40 games played mark according to Basketball-Reference.com.
The 1947-48 season that followed that draft saw four undrafted players play their first professional game in the league. Moreover, three of those four (Carl Braun, Paul Seymour, and Paul Noel) would surpass the 200 games played mark and get to play as many as 788 games in the case of Braun.
Undrafted players, though, wasn’t that common back in the day. Let alone undrafted free agents that ultimately became great over the years.
Before the 1980 NBA season, only 126 players made their debut after going undrafted. Of those 126, only 16 surpassed the 30 WS mark over their careers. Of course, there are some notable names among them (Moses Malone and George Mikan, to name two), but finding them was not the norm. It is logical, given that early drafts consisted of really long selection processes that saw more than a hundred players being selected every year. Basically, there was no room for undrafted players to get a roster spot.
Turns out, things are changing. Let’s take a look at what has happened around the NBA during the past 30 seasons.
The amount of undrafted FAs to play in the NBA is on a steady rise
Although the 2018-19 season had dropping numbers, there has been a constant in the league with regards to undrafted players: they keep coming and each passing year we see more and more of them playing at least a game in the NBA.
Since the 1989-90 season to the present one, there have been 691 undrafted players to debut at the professional level in the NBA.
Easy math tells us that 691 divided by the 30 marks covered in that span would yield 23 UFAs per year. But take a look at the chart above and you’ll notice that is not the case. There is an upward trend that started once the UFA crops sank in 2009 and 2010.
Barring three years from 2005 to 2007 that seems to be a little out of the norm, there has not been a moment in history as good as the current one for players that go undrafted to remain hopeful of making it to the Association.
The fact that more chances are given to prospects that are not deemed top players among the peers of their class doesn’t mean players end playing more on average during their careers, though.
Don’t be surprised by the outcome, though, as there is an explanation for the downside trend of the chart above. As players to debut in 2018 and 2019 as UFAs have in most of the cases yet to establish themselves in the league and prove they’re truly worthy of a roster spot over a long period, they haven’t yet averaged large amounts of games. That would stabilize over time, but again, the historical tendency has come up and up on average.
Ben Wallace, for example, is the UFA with the most games played in the data set with 1088 from 1997 to 2012. That accounts for an average of 68 games per year, but he played that many games constantly after his third year in the league when he was traded from Washington to Orlando and then to Detroit in 2000, where he became a four-time All-Star and won a championship.
If we take that three-year “polishing time” as the standard for establishing as an NBA player, and remove the averages for the 2017, 2018, and 2019 seasons, the relation between each passing year and the average of games UFAs plays over their career grows bigger.
Every franchise should gamble on more than a few UFAs each year
If the UFA market has become something to be hopeful on for the players themselves, it shouldn’t be less important for each and every NBA team.
To this point, we know that there are more and more UFAs making it to the Association, that opportunities are expanding, and that prospects are tending to stay longer in the league once they make it.
Is there also a relation between their careers’ length and the production they provide?
You probably expected something like that. Yes, there is a relation, and it is only getting better. Measured by WS/48 (to avoid players from the past having greater WS than those to debut recently just because of longevity) and limiting the data to players with an average of at least 30+ games per season, the production of UFAs is increasing as it never has (again, focus on seasons prior to 2017 as those contain the so-called “polished” players already).
The peak reached at the 2015-16 season is notable. That year the NBA welcomed names such as those of Boban Marjanovic, TJ McConnell, and Jonathon Simmons, who all remain in the league playing more than stable roles.
Some of the UFAs from the 2016 class on (that is, to debut in the 2016-17 season or later and who have yet to establish themselves and prove they’re worth a roster spot over the long run) are also promising. We’ve seen prospects such as Daniel Theis, Yogi Ferrell, Allonzo Trier, and Khem Birch blossom into interesting players for their teams.
All in all, banking on UFAs is the way to go
This last group of charts is the one that should convince both players and franchises, respectively, that not getting drafted doesn’t mean they can’t make it to the grandest of basketball scenarios and that giving a roster spot to an undrafted player is not a wrong decision.
Leaving the time span from 2017 to 2019 (because there may still be too many outliers in that sample), the trends are clear:
- Of the UFAs that remain active in the league in 2019 since they went undrafted, more and more have entered the league lately. Teams are banking on signing UFAs.
- On top of that, franchises have been willing to give more chances to UFAs each passing year since 2014. Undrafted players are accruing more games and there is a growing trend.
- Finally, the prospects are paying back and giving production levels never reached before. UFAs get better by the day due to the level of underage players getting better. A few decades ago it was a stretch to get a full draft worth of NBA players (it still is, to some point). Nowadays, though, UFAs are as important as those drafted if not more.
If all of this doesn’t convince you, young fella, to keep your hopes high after not hearing your name on draft night, I don’t know what more to tell you.
If all of this doesn’t convince you, old GM, to bring some UFAs to summer league and training camps, I don’t know what more to tell you.
Numbers are speaking for themselves. Pay a little attention and put your scouts to work, because the new wave of stars may never make it to the draft books and instead reach the league through murkier paths. No matter what, golden nuggets are out there. It is only a matter of finding them.