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How a ‘Woj bomb’ blew up NBA draft lines and cost bettors

Paolo Banchero was the favorite to go first, until he wasn't, until he was again. (John Minchillo/AP)
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For an NBA draft that lacked a clear-cut top pick, some clarity arrived Thursday morning, approximately 12 hours before the first pick was to be made, with a tweet from ESPN’s leading NBA breaking news reporter, Adrian Wojnarowski.

“As team boards finalize today, the 1-2-3 of the NBA Draft is increasingly firm, per sources: Jabari Smith to Orlando, Chet Holmgren to Oklahoma City and Paolo Banchero to Houston,” Wojnarowski wrote.

Because of Wojnarowski’s status — he has 5 million followers on Twitter and has turned scoopy nuggets into his calling card — the gambling universe paid attention. Smith went from +200 to -800, becoming the favorite to go No. 1. Banchero’s odds, meanwhile, dropped precipitously. He went from the expected top pick, at -800, to +600. They were huge swings: A line of -800 means you have to bet $800 to win $100; +600 means you win $600 for betting $100.

But by draft time, Wojnarowski’s reporting had changed.

A few minutes before the first pick was made, Wojnarowski reported on TV that Banchero was again the favorite. And he tweeted: “As the Orlando Magic move closer to getting on the clock, Duke’s Paolo Banchero is now looming as a frontrunner to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, sources tell ESPN.”

Banchero lurched back to -800, and he was selected first. What exactly happened remained a mystery. One theory suggested there was a key phone call between Banchero and the Magic; another was that Orlando was hoping to trade down a few picks while still getting its chosen player. But what was clear was that people listened to Wojnarowski. At Bet Rivers, more money was wagered on Smith than Banchero to be the draft’s first pick, even with Banchero being favored before Wojnarowski’s morning tweet and ultimately being picked first.

The ways the lines moved reinforced Wojnarowski’s ability to shape them dramatically and influence whether bettors who hang on his scoops win or lose money. In this case, they lost.

And unlike with other potential line-moving events that “insider” reporters routinely learn about before the betting public — injuries are the most common — people inside an organization know and control who gets selected in the draft. Those are the same people who might be feeding reporters information, even as bettors make wagers on the action. Someone, in theory, could give a reporter such as Wojnarowski a bad tip and then capitalize on the odds. Or a reporter himself or herself could capitalize.

Sports gambling is now legal and available in 30 states, and ESPN’s employees have publicized their gambling wins. Many sports media companies, including ESPN, are now in business with sportsbooks. But as newsgathering organizations, they have also attempted to create policies for their reporters. An ESPN spokesman said the company updated its wagering policy for employees in October.

“Employees may not use, disclose, or provide access to confidential information that they have learned in the course of their employment for any betting-related activities,” the policy states. The guidelines define confidential information as any nonpublic information a reporter may be exposed to as part of his or her job and “can relate to our Company, programming, reporting, business activities, or league or other partners.”

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Other outlets have adopted more stringent guidelines. The Athletic, which was acquired by the New York Times this year, does not allow reporters to bet on the sport they cover at all.

“Staff members are prohibited from betting on the leagues (e.g., NFL, NBA, EPL) that they cover and from using information obtained through work or relationships developed through their work with The Athletic to bet on other sports,” it reads. The policy, which staffers said was put in place this month, specifically noted that reporters who work on the Athletic’s betting vertical are allowed to wager. The Times has a similar policy, prohibiting sports reporters from gambling on the sports they cover while allowing “recreational wagers on sports they do not cover, in line with the laws where they live.”

The Washington Post has no written policy, said sports editor Matt Vita, but “we have a long-standing understanding with our reporters that they may not gamble on any sports event or teams that they cover.”

Sportsbooks, meanwhile, understand the difference between betting on draft picks vs. the outcome of a game, and they place much lower limits on draft pick wagers so they have less liability. “It’s not a traditional game,” said Jeff Sherman, the vice president of risk management at Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. “It’s something where people are racing for information. So you’re paying attention to every reporter, because the betting is all predicated on information.”

Sherman said Nevada legalized betting on drafts only in the last few years, and betting in the state is curtailed 24 hours before the event, though other states allow it on the day of. He pulled the first-pick prop bet from the NBA draft early Thursday morning.

Sherman added that the situation with the NBA draft was not entirely unprecedented. There have been wild swings in draft betting in previous years based on information from reporters. And when NBA star Kawhi Leonard has sat out large numbers of games during the season not for injury but for regular rest, there has often been a race by oddsmakers to find out his status when setting nightly lines.

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