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When Victor Wembanyama’s extra-long arm extended to clasp NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s hand Thursday night after the San Antonio Spurs selected him first overall in the NBA Draft, the scene surprised absolutely no one in attendance at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Wemby is the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James was drafted two decades ago. He is the Spurs’ third No. 1 overall pick after Hall-of-Famers David Robinson (1987) and Tim Duncan (1997). Whether Wembanyama can live up to the very lofty expectations will likely take years to determine, but we already know how much the 7-foot-4 Frenchman will earn in playing salary over the next four years: $54.4 million.
Rookie contracts for first rounders are tied to the NBA salary cap, which is projected to be $134 million for the 2023-24 season. The cap is expected to increase 8.4% versus last season, with rookie deals up the same percentage—Paolo Banchero signed a four-year, $50.2 million contract after the Orlando Magic selected him first overall in 2022. Accounting on the 2022-23 NBA season, which determines the final cap figure next season, will not be complete until June 30.
The value of the four-year contracts drops steeply for picks lower in the first round—even if your namesake is Kobe Bryant. Kobe Bufkin was selected 15th by the Atlanta Hawks and is in line for a $19.5 million deal. The final pick of the first round—Kobe Brown to the Los Angeles Clippers—will earn $12.2 million.
The first two years of these deals are guaranteed with “protection for lack of skill and injury or illness” as laid out in the NBA collective bargaining agreement. Teams hold options for years three and four, although typically only a handful of picks each draft class don’t have their options picked up. The 30 picks would receive a total of $682 million in salary over the next four years if all of their options were exercised. Endorsements will pad this total further.
Teams must offer at least 80% of the “rookie scale contract” per the terms of the CBA and can go as high as 120% of the rookie salary slot. In practice, almost every deal is done at the max slot value, and these contract projections reflect that. Second-round picks do not have any salary restrictions, but they are often for the league minimum or even two-way contracts that are roughly half the minimum and limit how many games a player is eligible to play.
NFL first-round picks also sign four-year contracts and have their pacts tied to their draft slot. Bryce Young, whom the Carolina Panthers picked first overall, is set to earn $38 million, including a $24.6 million signing bonus. The gap in contract values between the two leagues for first picks has grown to 30% from 18% in 2020, as the NFL “borrowed” money against future rookie compensation pools in 2021 to prevent a decline in rookie deals following the 2020 COVID-19-induced revenue shortfall.
The new NBA CBA, which tips off next season, keeps the current salary structure in place for first-round picks. The league and union discussed allowing players to once again enter the league straight from high school but ultimately kept the current “one-and-done” policy in place. The biggest CBA change for future draftees was making attendance at the annual NBA draft combine mandatory to be eligible for the draft. The rule is expected to be implemented for the 2024 draft.
The CBA will impose restrictions on roster construction for teams whose payrolls exceed a “second apron” of $17.5 million above the luxury tax threshold. With those potential penalties looming, certain teams will need valuable contributions from lower-salaried players. Players who can become productive while still on their cheap rookie contracts have the best chance to fit this bill.