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The Journey of NBA Players Without a Contract

Publish Date: 02.04.2024
Fact checked by: Jackson T. Pierce

Making it to the NBA is a long journey. There are many steps on the way to the top, and even the strongest or most seasoned athletes have trouble getting a contract. That’s why doing it in an unconventional way is so impressive.

Over the years, many NBA players have made it to the league without a typical contract. Rather than getting signed straight out of college, they go through other means such as the G-League, by playing overseas, or excelling in various tryouts.

Getting to the league that way still pays the same as if a player were drafted, it’s just another road for those who don’t get the same attention as other athletes.

The Top 3 NBA Players Without a Contract

This section details the 3 most popular players currently in the league who made it without being drafted.

1. Austin Reaves

Austin Reaves has been a sensation ever since joining the Lakers in 2021. His beginnings were much more subdued. The guard excelled during his two years at Oklahoma, but went undrafted after rejecting the Pistons when they selected him with the 42nd pick.

Rather than going and signing a deal, he decided to play for the Lakers on a two-way contract. That allowed him to try out, playing for both the team and the G-League affiliate, and getting a chance at a roster spot.

He eventually achieved that goal, providing a boost to the team and becoming one of the key pieces in their rotation.

2. Fred VanVleet

Like Reaves, Fed VanVleet did not go to the NBA through a conventional path. He also excelled in college, becoming a standout star at Wichita State, and then went undrafted.

From there, he had two separate offers to play in the NBA Development League. However, due to the low pay of such contracts ($20,000), he passed and signed a deal to play in the 2016 NBA Summer League with the Toronto Raptors.

As with Reaves, he excelled. The guard quickly earned a roster spot and signed a multi-year deal with the Raptors. He then went on to win a ring and, as a member of the Rockets, continues to be one of the best point guards around.

3. Duncan Robinson

Out of all players who made it to the NBA without a conventional contract, none had a more unique road than Duncan Robinson. Not only did he start out at a Division III college, only making it to Michigan late in his career, but he went undrafted in 2018.

As with VanVleet, he signed a Summer League contract and excelled against top talent. That led him to sign a two way contract with the Miami Heat and the Sioux Falls Skyforce. He then made his NBA debut and has been a key part of the Heat ever since.

The Road Less Traveled

Almost all NBA players make it to the league through the draft. That means they play well in college, enter the draft, and then get picked by a team. At that point, they negotiate a rookie deal and try to get a bigger contract down the line.

Those who aren’t drafted and end up without a typical contract have a few different avenues they can take. They can sign a two-way contract, go overseas, or play in the G-League. Some players also join the Summer League or do individual tryouts.

Such avenues let players show off their talents in a unique setting and give teams a closer look at them. While they may not have the same opportunities as NBA players, they do get a chance to play in front of scouts. From there, there’s no telling where they might land.

Life in the G League and Overseas

Playing in the NBA is not easy, but it’s worth it in the end. Not only do players get large salaries, but they always have the ability to earn more as time goes on. That’s why, for most athletes, it’s worth doing whatever it takes to get there.

The two best roads for those without an NBA contract are the G League or playing overseas. While each is a viable way to make it to the league, both are not easy roads by any means. There are many challenges in each one.

Players in such leagues have much lower salaries than even the lowest paid NBA players and they do not get the same visibility or popularity either. They go out in front of less fans, for less pay, but still need to put in just as much work.

On top of that, they are typically away from their families for long periods of time, and still put a lot of stress on their body through workouts and practices. They are also under a lot of pressure, which can make suiting up for every game a challenge in and of itself.

However, it’s not all bad. Athletes who go to the G League or play overseas do earn a solid wage, anywhere between $50 thousand and $250 thousand. That’s not a lot compared to an NBA superstar, but it’s good for playing a sport.

Another bonus is that they get a chance to develop. Some players have the skills to get to the NBA, but they aren’t ready. Playing in a structured league against other professional athletes can help get them there. They have access to top tier resources too.

Stories of Resilience and Success

Looking at the above section, the journey NBA players without a contract have to take is not easy. A lot of undrafted players who make it end up being cut or only sticking around for a season. Even so, there are a few who persevere.

The biggest example of that is ex-Pistons all-star Ben Wallace. The strong center was the core of a championship team and is currently the only undrafted player to make it all the way to the hall of fame. That’s a tough feat, and one that’s not likely to be repeated anytime soon.

He’s not the only undrafted player to find success. John Starks became the first undrafted all-star in 1994, Udonis Haslem was the first undrafted player to lead his franchise in rebounds, while the aforementioned Fred VanVleet is the only to ever break 50 points in a game.

More than a few players have gone undrafted only to become all-stars later on. That shows just how much spirit and determination someone must have from getting no initial contract to being a key piece of their team. Their journey is tough, but not impossible.

A Psychological and Emotional Journey

Going undrafted all the way to an NBA roster is great when it happens, but that process doesn’t occur overnight. It takes a lot of patience and can be both mentally/physically taxing on multiple levels.

Athletes in the G-League, Summer League, and playing overseas can make decent money, but such contracts are unstable. The deals don’t have anywhere near the same security as professional ones, and one injury or bad season can lock people out for good.

That puts a ton of extra stress on athletes without contracts, and it makes their games that much more important. While the need to succeed creates incentive to play well for their teams, it can also create off-court issues. That goes double for those who don’t have any other income.

Undrafted players need to stay focused and do whatever they can to stand out. There are only so many shots such players get. Blowing a critical shot or not working hard enough can be the difference between a solid contract and getting forgotten.

Policy and Future Prospects

Everyone who plays basketball at a high level seeks to land a one-way contract due to the stability it provides. Even single season or short-term deals pay much more than what anyone will make in a proximity league.

The NBA doesn’t completely leave those who are close out to dry, however. The league offers two-way contracts, which enable exceptional players a chance to try a few games in the NBA and see if they have what it takes to excel at a professional level.

Teams also have 10-day contract options. Such deals allow them to bring in free agents who currently don’t have any contracts and try them out for a 10 day period. At that point, they can sign or waive them depending on their performance.

The league has expanded both of those contract types in recent years, giving teams more options for bringing in players who show potential. Recent rule changes also allow undrafted players who still have eligibility to return to school if they so wish.


It takes a level of toughness to make it to the NBA, and that goes double for undrafted players. Getting rejected and having to grind in another league for an uncertain contract takes a mental and physical toll on all athletes. It can be easy to give up, but some push on.

While recent policy shifts have given such athletes more chances, it can still be a long and laborious road to the top. College itself is a tough world, and getting past that just to be told no is not something everyone can handle.

Out of all the NBA players who made it onto an official roster without a contract, only a few stuck around for more than a year or two. The above reasons show why that is, and how much heart it takes for someone to take the road less traveled.

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