Basketball is one of the most popular sports in the world, and certainly the most popular worldwide of North America’s big four sports. From high school basketball to March Madness to the NBA, America loves its hoops, and so does the rest of the world. Leagues and teams across Europe and Asia are growing, and some of the NBA’s biggest stars have come from overseas.
The NBA’s surging popularity and star power have done wonders for the popularity of the game, and the league has big earnings to show for it. The average NBA franchise is now worth $1.3 billion, with the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, and Golden State Warriors all topping $2.5 billion in value. The value is also reflected in its players’ salaries, as NBA players outearn their counterparts from other sports.
Average Salary for NBA players in 2018 – $5 million
As of the 2016-2017 NBA season, the average salary for NBA players across all levels is $5,012,892. There are under 600 players in the NBA team ecosystem at one time, including the NBA active rosters, inactive and injured lists, and the NBA Development League. The scarcity of elite talent and popularity of the sport have helped propel the NBA to the highest average salary among major American sports, topping Major League Baseball’s $4.4 million per year and more than doubling the NFL’s average salary of $2.1 million.
While the mean salary is the highest of the major sports, the disparity between the top and bottom is also the largest. For NBA Developmental League players who aren’t on a regular NBA contract, salaries are divided into two tiers, with the upper tier earning $26,000 and the lower tier earning $19,500. In contrast, Lebron James is the highest paid player in the NBA, earning just under $31 million for the 2016-2017 season. The median salary of players in the NBA system is $2.2 million, less than half of the mean average.
According to the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, NBA players must be paid a minimum salary contingent on their years of experience. For 2016-2017, the rookie minimum is $543,471. Players with 10 or more seasons of experience have a minimum salary of $1.551,659. Free agents and players called up from the Developmental League can be signed to 10-day contracts up to twice, after which they must be signed to a full-season contract that fits these minimums to be retained.
Established NBA players are paid. Good post players are in highest demand, and centers command the highest average salaries, topping $7 million. Forwards earn $6.2 million, while guards average just under $5.5 million.
How to become an NBA player
From 1971, when Spencer Haywood won a Supreme Court case against the NBA to allow him to play despite not being four years removed from college, until 2006, players could declare from the draft straight out of high school. Several top NBA players came into the league that way, including Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, and Amar’e Staudemire.
The NBA negotiated a clause in the 2006 collective bargaining agreement stating that players must be 19 years old to be draft eligible, which made most high school players ineligible. Thanks to this clause, many high school players who otherwise would have declared ended up becoming “one-and-done” college players, playing a single season and declaring for the draft. Other players have chosen to play professionally overseas or enter the NBA Development League instead.
The NBA Developmental League was established in 2001 as a minor league basketball system, complete with NBA league affiliate teams. Players who aren’t drafted into the NBA draft or aren’t eligible to be drafted may be drafted into the D-League, where they play in hopes of getting a callup. Players who are under 19 can still be drafted into the regular NBA draft once they are eligible, which has happened six times in the league’s history. The most recent case was P.J. Hairston, drafted in the first round in 2014.
For most players, the surest route to the NBA is the annual NBA draft. 60 players are picked per year in two rounds, with each team assigned a pick in each round. Most first rounders and many of the second rounders make it onto active rosters their first season, so getting drafted is a player’s best chance at a real NBA paycheck. FIrst round picks sign contracts paying them up to around $5 million for the first overall pick to around $1 million for the 30th pick.
Becoming an NBA player is only for the best of the best, and for many, that still won’t be enough. Between the stiff competition and the small rosters, the odds of becoming an NBA regular are slimmer than slim. For those who succeed, though, their reward is one of the most impressive incomes in all of sports.