What on Earth is the The WNBA Draft Lottery?

The Draft Lottery as Seen by Someone Who’s Never Watched it Before

By Preston Bradsher | December 7, 2020
Source: YouTube, WNBA

The WNBA Draft Lottery took place on Friday, with the New York Liberty coming away with the No. 1 pick for the second year in a row. Dallas, Atlanta, and Indiana received the next three picks after missing the playoffs in the 2020 season, and will be among the first to choose from an exciting draft class in the 2021 WNBA Draft next April. 

This strange season has led to some complications for the draft, and with the NCAA extending an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic and several talented juniors not yet decided about their next chapter, the draft class is still very much in the air. There are plenty of great prospects on the table, and you can be sure those players will be analyzed and re-analyzed right up to the draft, but for now, let’s leave that speculation for another day and look to what’s really important here: the absolute madness that is the WNBA Draft Lottery.

Now, I’ve never watched the lottery before this year. I’ve heard of it, and paid attention to who got the best picks, but I’ve never actually sat down to watch the process. I guess I assumed it would be pretty boring and straightforward, like a soundcheck that happens before a big concert–something that needs to happen to set up the main event, but not much worth watching by itself. I’ve never been so glad to be so wrong. 

The draft lottery is a marvel of weirdness, a mass of contradictions, something that would cause an alien observing our planet to shake its head in confusion. The crucial task of determining draft order for the season could have been simple; it could have been automated or done behind the scenes by league officials. Instead, it’s a public event full of equal parts whimsy and cold seriousness, a nationally televised spectacle that combines the charm of the league’s least camera-ready personalities with the joy of your grandma’s bingo game to make one of the biggest decisions of the year.

Here’s an excellent specimen of the WNBA Draft Lottery from 2019:

If you haven’t watched this year’s lottery for yourself, I highly recommend you remedy that as soon as possible, for the true joys of the WNBA Draft Lottery lie in the details. To set the scene: three accountant types stand in front of a long table with a WNBA backdrop behind them. On the table we have a basketball, a weird plastic briefcase that looks like it should contain an art kit from the 90s, and a transparent, space-age bingo cage that is the reason we’re all here. 

These men are not TV personalities, not by a long shot. They do not seem excited by the proceedings at all, and they spend most of their five minutes of fame attempting to avoid eye contact with the camera and with each other. No one smiles, not even for a moment. I am not entirely convinced they aren’t being held here against their will. 

I am fascinated by these three accountants/lawyers/robots and their respective roles in this production, and since they tell us absolutely nothing about themselves, I’ve given them titles to help distinguish them for our purposes. 

The Cast of Characters

The Bearer of the Briefcase: Our most talkative character, in that he says approximately three sentences through the entire five minute show, he seems to be the guy in charge. He runs the show from the center of the table, and is fond of staring confidently into the distance in absolute silence broken only by the sweet, sweet sound of ping pong balls rattling around in a bingo cage. This guy definitely knows what is going on here but chooses not to tell us; he has all the power and he knows it. I am a little afraid of this man.

The Keeper of the Balls: To the right of the Bearer sits our next character, whose entire job seems to be the care and handling of the all-important ping pong balls. He lovingly takes them out of their briefcase and places them one by one into the bingo cage/mad scientist’s beaker/modernist teapot, and he releases them from the cage one at a time when the action begins. He has a monastic devotion to the balls and clearly takes his position very seriously. I respect this man.

The Mysterious Observer: The third man at the table is the real enigma. He just stands there for the whole event, never saying a single word. He watches as the other two choose the all-important ping pong balls, his eyes never betraying his silent approval or judgement. This man is like a cold, distant father, always watching but never revealing his true feelings. I very much want this man to like me.

The Wizard of the Draft: Our final character is never seen on screen, but his impact is palpable. He is the man behind the curtain, the puppetmaster, the unseen director of all the thrilling, ping pong ball-related action that’s brought us together today. The Wizard, we are told, stands with his back to the machine and raises his hand when it’s time for the Keeper of the Balls to draw the next number. Though they only see him from the back, this man of mystery has the full attention of our other three heroes as they stare off camera at him, completely enthralled and yet somehow totally dead-eyed. This off-camera setup is for our own good, as this man is clearly too powerful for us mere mortals to look upon him.

The Main Event

If you’ve ever had one of those nightmares where you find yourself taking a test you haven’t studied for, on a subject you don’t know, in a language you’ve never heard, but everyone around you seems to understand it perfectly, you’ll have an idea of how I felt watching the WNBA draft for the first time. How is this a real thing? How do we take it so seriously? How does this even work?

As our stony-faced heroes reverently place the numbered ping pong balls into the bingo cage of destiny and begin drawing numbers from it, I keep waiting for some kind of explanation–an aside from the Bearer of the Briefcase, a graphic on the screen, a carrier pigeon tapping on my window, anything. Instead, the leader of the ever cryptic trio simply turns off the sacred vessel, reads out the numbers of the chosen four balls, and confidently pronounces the New York Liberty the recipient of next year’s No. 1 draft pick. They repeat the process for the No. 2 pick, say thank you, and the screen goes blank. I am left with nothing, no explanations, feeling like I missed the study guide for this very odd test. 

After recovering from my initial shock, I set out to understand this strange ritual which has now become my favorite television program of the year. Basically, each of the four teams with the worst record in the league over the past two years is given a certain share of lottery chances out of 1000. The team with the worst cumulative record gets the most chances, the second worst gets the second most chances, and so on. These chances are actually four-digit combinations that are kept by some additional off-screen basketball accountant, and when the all-knowing glass tube selects its four balls, the team that has that combination of numbers on their list of chances wins the number one pick. Simple! 

Apparently the NBA used to use envelopes to determine the lottery; I don’t know who changed that to ping pong balls, but thank goodness they did. What a treat to watch three accountants joylessly read out numbers next to this machine that absolutely screams whimsy, all to determine which of the losingest teams in the league gets a shot at a star player next season. I now consider myself a convert, a WNBA Draft Lottery believer. Catch me watching next year’s installment in my I Heart the Briefcase T-shirt and waving a foam finger, wondering if the Wizard will ever show his face or if I’ll be left another year to wander the wilderness, the sound of ping pong balls clattering in my ears.

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