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I am not American and this is something I do not understand about sports here in the US, so please bear with me. I know in the US, professional sports teams can't be "relegated" to a "second Division," and instead get an earlier pick during the college draft if they perform worse. This makes sense - it allows teams with poor performance to pick themselves up by getting better reinforcements. However, this means potentially worse teams will get the best college players. It seems, then, that being an earlier "pick" in the draft is potentially a bad thing for a college athlete, since they will get picked up by a worse team (If I were a college soccer player, for example, I'd prefer to be picked up by Real Madrid than by Betis, theoretically).

This seems like it doesn't make sense - it seems like it would discourage athletic performance in college since players should prefer to be picked up by the teams that are winning championships and not the ones that are struggling.

So, how does it work? Where do the earlier picks in the draft end up, usually? Do the "worse" teams pick up the best players and them trade them instantly?

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it seems like it would discourage athletic performance in college since players should prefer to be picked up by the teams that are winning championships and not the ones that are struggling.

I would say that in general, this particular aspect of play doesn't have much of an impact on collegiate athletics, for several reasons.

  • Most college athletes never play professionally

While there are some elite high-school athletes that could be an exception, the vast majority would be thrilled (at least initially) to play for even the worst professional team. The decision to play or not play a sport in college is not going to hinge on the worry that you might have to play for a poor team after college.

  • Draft picks aren't science

Except for the very top picks, the range where a player might be selected is huge. Outside the first round, the range might well be greater than the entire league. So there's no disincentive for such players.

  • Early picks are compensated financially

First round draftees have their elite status in the draft confirmed by the teams. That status means lucrative contracts, even from poor teams.

  • All leagues have some form of free-agency

Any elite player that has longevity in the league will have the opportunity to move.

Where do the earlier picks in the draft end up, usually? Do the "worse" teams pick up the best players and them trade them instantly?

I don't see how this follows from your earlier statements. Why would a poor team want to trade away a good player? It certainly can happen (a team might decide that trading away pick #1 for 4 or 5 other players would help them more), but often they hope the player will help them directly by playing.

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The drafts actually depend on the sport. I'll explain how the draft process works for Basketball, American Football and Baseball.

In basketball, there are 30 teams in the "first division" (the second division would be called the D-League, but as you mentioned, teams don't get relegated). Of those 30 teams, 16 make it to the playoffs. That leaves 14 teams that don't compete in the post season, and as a result, they go into a random draw that determines their order to draft a college player, known as the "lottery pick". Basically, the worse the record the team had in the regular season, the better the chance it has to pick first. However, this does not mean that the team with the worst record picks first. It simply means their percentage is higher. Once the order for the first 3 picks has been decided, the rest of the teams are ordered depending on their win-loss record from the previous season. One point to note, there are teams that have tendencies to lose on purpose (or so we think) to increase their chances of getting a first overall pick in the draft (this is known as "tanking"). However, regardless of the team a college player goes to, it is always an honor and best for them to shoot for a higher pick in the draft (even though they can go to a "worse" team in theory). They can subsequently get much higher contracts in that case.

Unlike basketball, the NFL's draft system is directly based on a team's win-loss record from the previous season. As a result, the worse the team's record, the higher the pick in the draft they have.

In baseball, the draft is much like the NFL draft, in which the worst team gets to pick first in the draft. However, there is an additional point in which a team who has lost free agent (i.e a player who is eligible to sign with any club or franchise who isn't under any contract) can get "compensatory" picks.

  • This is all true, but doesn't answer the question, which is about what happens to high draft picks. – Philip Kendall Aug 2 '15 at 16:00
  • @PhilipKendall "Where do the earlier picks in the draft end up, usually? Do the "worse" teams pick up the best players and them trade them instantly?" I believe I answered that pretty clearly. No reason to downvote my answer... – Adam Aug 2 '15 at 17:53
  • @Adam Some examples of how some high picks's careers panned out ("so-and-so got picked by this terrible team but as a result got traded a few years later to this other very good team") would be illustrative and very welcome. It's the only thing your answer is missing in my opinion. – farid99 Aug 2 '15 at 20:34
  • @farid99 well it's not uncommon for good players to get traded to good teams, especially when the player becomes a free agent (like LeBron James when he went to the Miami Heat). So in retrospect, it's very hard to pinpoint specific examples when it happens quite often. – Adam Aug 3 '15 at 22:24
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You're pretty much there, but the one significant difference between US sports and European sports (especially post-Bosman) is that professional American sports players generally do not have freedom of movement, at least until they've acquired a significant amount of professional experience. This means that the worse teams can happily draft the best players and hang onto them for typically at least three years, no matter what the player wants1, and, in theory anyway, build a competitive team around those draft picks.

  1. If the player wants to play that professional sport, anyway. See Can a collegiate player reject a draft pick? for details.

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