Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The new NBA basketball is throwing players off their game


If you have tuned in to an NBA game this season, you might have noticed something weird. A lot of this...


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Tatum is going to take. Nope.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: Fox stepback - short.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #3: Field missing the three.

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #4: There's the first one. In and out.

KELLY: Players missing shots - brick after brick after brick.


Nearly three weeks into this season, the league's shooting percentage is lower than it's been in more than 15 years. The percentage of three pointers made? That's the lowest it's been this century. And some think the culprit is the NBA's new ball.

KELLY: That is right. It is still orange. It is still leather. But after 38 years, it is not made by Spalding. The NBA has partnered with Wilson, and folks around the league, including LA Clippers star Paul George, are noticing a difference.


PAUL GEORGE: It's a different basketball. It don't have the same touch and softness that the Spalding ball had. And, you know, you'll see this year. It's going to be a lot of bad misses. You've seen a lot of air balls so far this season.

CORNISH: Even league stars are having a tough time of it - Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards, Damian Lillard on the Portland Trail Blazers, even the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets worried about, well, losing his grip on the Spalding.

KAUSHIK DE: The NBA players are incredibly skilled, so even very small, subtle changes can take time to adjust to and, in some cases, maybe impossible to adjust their playing styles to.

KELLY: That is physics professor Kaushik De, and he is familiar with this story. In 2006, the NBA planned to introduce a new synthetic ball and ditch the leather. They test ran the ball in the offseason. Players hated it. So they and a team of physicists at UT Arlington studied differences between the two basketballs. They did find fundamental elements that would affect performance.

DE: We studied fiction. And we found that when the balls were dry, friction was almost identical between the rubber and the synthetic ball. But when the ball got wet, it changed a lot.

CORNISH: So before the first tip-off, leather was back. This year, professor De says even subtle differences in manufacturing could affect an NBA player's numbers.

DE: Since it's still a leather ball, my guess would be that the players would adapt and adjust to it after a while. Now, how long is after a while? Is it weeks? Is it months? That I don't know.

KELLY: Well, let's hope for the sake of players and fans alike that they figure it out. Until then, maybe teams should focus on layups and dunks? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Justine Kenin