Navigating through the NBA Agent Selection Process

Navigating through the NBA Agent Selection Process
Apr 13, 2007, 03:00 am

Note: This article was originally published in April of 2007. With the agent-recruitment process in full swing as the season nears an end, we would like to bring this information back to the forefront.

A list of recommendations for NCAA players who are currently being wooed by NBA player agents, based off conversations we've had with NBA executives, current NBA and European-based players, and NBA certified Agents.

There is an argument to be made that for most NCAA players, no decision is more important when deciding to turn professional than the agent selection process. Agents play an absolutely essential role in helping steer their clients through the often very complicated NBA draft process. Starting with knowing the timing of when to declare for the draft, gathering feedback from NBA executives on a player's draft stock, picking a suitable trainer to prepare for private workouts and (potentially) the pre-draft camp, setting up workouts and managing the “hype” factor that can play a role in where a player is selected, and much much more—the wrong choice at this early stage can end up delivering a serious setback that some players just can't recover from, shooting a career down before it ever gets off the ground.

Too often it seems like these decisions are made with short-term gains in mind rather than thinking about the bigger picture. Credit lines, fancy cars and loose women take the place of proven track records, personal client services and reputations in the industry for being able to get the job done effectively. Players invite anywhere from 2 to 10 agents to their homes or campuses to deliver fancy presentations, which in the end, all sound essentially the same, particularly when no attempt is made to verify the claims that are made. What is lacking is a comprehensive list of tough questions and issues that parents and players should demand be answered in order to cut through the hype and fluff and get straight to the issues that matter most—the substance. With that in mind, we've put together our own based off studying the process from afar over the past four years and consulting with the parties in this process that are affected the most.

Client Lists

Often times a player will be presented with an agent's top clients list, obviously used in order to make an impression in regards to other prestigious players that that agent has signed (whether before or after that player went through the draft process). This list will often have tremendous name recognition if we're dealing with one of the 10 top agencies or so. What a player should be asking for is a comprehensive list of not only EVERY player the agent represents (both in the NBA, D-League, and overseas), but every player the agent has EVER represented in their history in the business. From there, the player can evaluate (preferably by asking directly) how many times the agent has been fired, and begin to investigate independently (or again, preferably asking directly) what are the reasons for that. If an agent is less than truthful with that information (and this can easily be verified with people in the league or other agents), then that should raise red flags.

In addition, a player should ask for a comprehensive list of every contract that the agent has negotiated in basketball, regardless of whether that player is still with them or not. If there is a trend of an agent's clients being signed for less than market value, and vice-versa, that should be noted. Keep in mind that with larger agencies there are multiple agents being employed, so make sure it's clear which agent will be representing you and which list corresponds to that specific agent, or rather the entire agency as a whole.

Illegal Benefits

Let's face it. It happens all the time. We get told about illegal activities constantly, but there is very little we can actually do about it unfortunately (for now). What a player needs to keep in mind is that in every state that the Uniform Athlete Agent's Act has passed (35 as of 2/27/07), it is a felony, sometimes punishable by jail time, to “furnish anything of value to a student-athlete before the student-athlete enters into the agency contract.”

Unfortunately the NBA Agency world is, in this writer's opinion, one of the most poorly regulated industries in professional sports—light years behind the NFL for example—meaning that these rules are (sadly) rarely, if ever, actually enforced. That doesn't make it OK, though.

What a player needs to take into consideration is, if an agent blatantly cheats in order to sign you as his client, what are the chances that he will continue to blatantly cheat as you move forward in your career? Is that the kind of person you want to trust your entire career with? How highly do you value your own reputation? The thing that is most baffling is when a player who is a lottery pick (or his family) decides to take a substantial amount of money from an agent just a few months before they are to cash in themselves on a multi-million dollar contract and/or endorsement deal, and thus allows their decision to be swayed accordingly. Isn't it better to just wait?

This is a touchy subject, but make sure you evaluate the people that are involved in the decision making process, and consider what their ulterior motives might be in getting you to sign with a specific agent. Ask them tough questions too, make sure they aren't getting kick-backs to steer you in a certain direction. It's happened before that college coaches, AAU coaches, high school coaches, friends, brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, lawyers, principals, ministers and others have been swayed with the promise of cash or other inducements. Some (but obviously not all!) agents will do anything to gain an advantage. And the sad thing is, it works, and has become so common that it's very difficult to compete in the industry unless these types of shady tactics are used.


Most agents have a list handy of players or contacts in the league (friends) that they know will say good things about them. The trick is to find an objective source that has no reason to say anything else but the truth, whether it's good or bad. Don't be afraid to ask for phone numbers of “the player personnel director from the Miami Heat” [for example] or the “assistant GM of the Atlanta Hawks.” Examine the list you asked for (above) of contracts that agent negotiated, and work from there.

Also, it could be very useful to get a list of all players who an agent has been fired by in his history. But don't just stop there, get phone numbers of some of these people too, to find out why they decided to fire that person. Don't take what they say as the holy grail, though, because they can often be just as biased or unrealistic as the next guy…use it as just another small piece to the puzzle, like a detective would in trying to solve a crime.

The easiest thing in the world is for the agent to put you on the phone with the most marquee name on their client list, the one who happens to get the most attention. That isn't always an accurate representation of the type of service you'll receive, though. Get phone numbers of their lesser attractive clients too, the least glamorous ones, to see what they have to say about the experience they've had.

What do you know about me?

Some agents take the approach of throwing darts against a wall in regards to recruiting, meaning going after dozens of players, working the odds, and hoping that as many of them as possible sign. Again, there are pros and cons to this approach as far as the player is concerned. It isn't difficult to find out how much time and energy an agent invested in researching a player and learning about his background and what NBA teams think about him. Ask tough questions to find these things out. Figure out what they think about your draft stock, what your chances are of being a first round pick, why you might not be projected as one in various scouting services, what you need to improve on, what are you already good at, and more.

Once you get past that, ask about what players that agent has had in your situation before and found success with. How many workouts did that player get, what kind of contract did they sign down the road? Don't just take their word…ask for that player's number and verify all the information they gave you. Some agents will be able to communicate and relate to players better than others, and there are clear advantages to that…but don't lose sight of what their job really is. You don't need to like the way your doctor looks or want to have lunch with him a few times a week, especially if they do the best job possible. If you are going to have heart surgery, would you choose your friend to conduct the operation, or a respected expert in the field? Would you shop around trying to find the cheapest deal possible, or would you try to get the best in the business to work with you? The same applies to a certain extent to the trainer that will be preparing you for the NBA draft.

Experience, Expertise, Education

Something that should be factored in as well. Someone that went to Yale isn't necessarily a better agent than someone who went to UConn, but a law degree or an MBA could very well help in the contract negotiation process. How long have you been certified for by the NBA Players Association? What is your field of expertise? Tell me about your background in the field. How many contracts have you negotiated? How good is your understanding of the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement? Can you explain to me the nuances of the poison pill provision or what a Base Year Compensation player is? Do you have the leverage to get a player traded? Waived? What are some creative clauses you have put in contracts in the past that worked out in your player's favor?

Just like not every great basketball player makes a great coach or General Manager…not everyone in the basketball business is cut out to be an NBA player agent. It's a profession like any other that requires specific skills, training and expertise. For many players, making the wrong choice on the first go-around means they won't get another chance later.

Damage Control

Anyone can sign a top 5 draft pick with a sparkling reputation and enjoy tremendous mutual success. That's the easy part of this business. The question is, what kind of experience or track record does an agent have with a player who needs help in a tough situation? Have you ever had a player fall substantially in the draft? Have a terrible season in a contract year? Get charged with a DUI? Unintentionally knock up his “girlfriend”? Have a run-in at the bar? What kind of damage control can that agent provide in front of the media, the league and the team? A player can also ask for specific examples of suspensions that were appealed to Stu Jackson and the league office.

Agent-State Registration

Most states have laws governing and regulating the activities of player agents. For an unregistered agent, often times just contacting a player is considered breaking the law, although this is very rarely enforced, except in unique cases. There are probably some excellent agents that aren't registered and have broken this law from time to time, but this is just another way to gauge how serious someone is about the industry they work in. Another thing to ask about is criminal history, complaints that have been made to the NBPA, charges or investigations conducted by the NCAA, NBA, or NBPA, etc.

Other Current Recruits

Very few agents go after only one player in every given year. You can't expect them to, and it's very hard to blame them considering how difficult it is to actually get players to sign. It would be foolish to put “all your eggs in one basket” so to speak. Some agents say that for every 5 players they recruit, they end up signing 1. Some say the ratio is 10 to 1. It is your right, though, to know what other players your agent might be representing alongside you in the draft, especially at your position. It would have been a slight conflict of interest for example for Andrea Bargnani to be represented by the same agent as LaMarcus Aldridge last year, since they were competing for the same spots in the draft and needed to be presented in a favorable light compared with one another. It's clearly in a player's best interest to get a reasonable amount of his agent's attention, so if that agent is signing 5 lottery picks and you are projected to be a late 2nd round pick…who do you think is going to get more attention? Is that really the best fit? There is no right or wrong answer to that, but it's something that should be considered.

Client Services

Some agencies are huge, and employ dozens of people to handle every aspect of a player's career, whether it's Public Relations, Marketing, Long-term Financial Planning, or Contract negotiation. Some agencies are smaller and decide to outsource these more trivial matters to others. Again, it's all a matter of preference, and there is clearly a case to be made for both. That doesn't mean that these issues shouldn't be brought up though. In addition to what was discussed above, ask about minute details like filing tax returns in each state (something every NBA player must do), helping a player find a new apartment after being traded, picking out the right car according to a player's budget, etc, etc.

Negative Recruitment

It's hard to say too much about this issue, since it's obviously become a huge part of the recruiting process, but pay attention to how much of the focus becomes on what a specific agent CAN do for YOU, and what that agent thinks all the OTHER agents that are recruiting the player CAN'T do. Clearly, there are cases when a player should know about an agent's background, reputation, or other watchdog functions, but if that becomes a substantial focus of the recruiting process rather than their own personal pitch, it might be something to take into account.

That differs from comparing and contrasting though. Don't be afraid to ask questions about how one specific agent is different than another. Why is this agent offering to waive the commission for my rookie contract while you aren't? Why do certain agents charge 20% for marketing while others charge 15%? Why are certain agents offering big up-front credit lines or “marketing guarantees” while others aren't? If these topics sound foreign to you, go out and research them.

Europe/Minor Leagues

If we polled all the players in this draft to see where they think they'll end up being drafted, we'd likely find that for their expectations to be accommodated, there would have to be 30 spots in the lottery, 60 spots in the first round, and another 100 picks in the 2nd round. Very very rarely will you meet a player who is realistic about his strengths and weaknesses, his draft stock, his chances of making the NBA, or becoming a star, etc. If you don't subscribe to his own delusions of grandeur, then you're obviously a “hater.”

That's why it's almost taboo to bring up the subject of Europe or the Minor Leagues in the recruitment process. Considering the odds against making the NBA, that is clearly a mistake. Not everyone can make the NBA on their first go-around, and it's a smart idea to have a backup plan in place in case that doesn't happen. Keep in mind that the NBA draft is only one day, only a very small part of a player's overall career.

Some potential questions include: How do you handle your non-NBA clients? What type of overseas network do you have in place to land me a contract, and in which countries? What type of level or league do you think I might be suited for if I don't make the NBA? Can I get phone numbers for the European agents you work with? Can I speak with some of your American clients who are playing overseas? Besides your NBA clients, how many players did you place in summer league last July? How many went to training camp? Have any of your clients that went undrafted end up making the NBA? Did you have any players in the D-League or CBA this year? How many callups have your clients received?

The Roadmap/Your Plan

It's very important for an agent to layout a clear cut plan for what they intend on doing from the moment they sign you until draft day, and then afterwards as well. Where will you workout? Who will pay for that? What happens after I get drafted? What happens if I don't get drafted?

This list is just a recommendation of things a player and his family should first of all think about and discuss, and then pick and choose what they want to ask about. Not every player is in a position to go through the same investigation process, so don't overstate your position at the negotiation table…

As always, we're open to feedback on other topics that we might have missed or not gone into enough detail about. Send us an email below (specific examples would be welcomed) and maybe we'll post a follow up article.

A message left at the NBPA seeking various types of comment or feedback for this article was not returned.

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