For the first time since 1982, the NBA is not playing with the Spalding basketballs that have, obviously, spanned the full career of every player in the league to this point. Everyone is having to adjust to the new Wilson balls on the fly. And it might not be going so well.
Shooting is down across the board. Entering play on Thursday, the league is shooting a collective .343 percent from 3. That would rank as the lowest mark this century, and the league’s 44.8 overall shooting percentage would be the lowest mark since 2004, per Basketball-Reference.
Individually, there are a few notable shooting nosedives. Anthony Davis is shooting 15 percent from 3. Damian Lillard is shooting 23 percent. Bradley Beal is at 24 percent. Luka Doncic (who, to be fair, has always been more a volume than high-percentage shooter) sits at 25 percent, Jayson Tatum 26 percent, Devin Booker (also not a great 3-point shooter historically) 27 percent and Trae Young 28 percent.
It’s obviously early, and over the years there are noted trends of the league’s collective shooting percentages starting out low and slowly improving as the season goes on. There is no way to draw a direct line between the new balls and the heretofore shooting decline.
But it’s part of the equation. The league worked closely with Wilson to get the new ball as close to an exact replica of the old one as possible, but it can’t be exactly the same. And players are noticing. Here’s Paul George’s thoughts:
“Not to make an excuse or anything about the ball but I said that it’s just a different basketball,” George recently said. “It don’t have the same touch and softness that the Spalding ball had. You’ll see this year. It’s going to be a lot of bad misses. You’ll see a lot of bad misses. I think you’ve seen a lot of airballs so far this season. Again, not to put any excuse or blame on the basketball. But it is different. There’s no secret. It’s a different basketball.”
CJ McCollum, who serves as president of the National Basketball Players Association, also pointed to the adjustment of playing with the new ball.
What’s interesting is both McCollum and George have both gotten out to hot shooting starts. McCollum entered Thursday shooting 43 percent from 3, while George, the league’s leading scorer, is shooting 42 percent from 3 and 50 percent from the field. So they’re not voicing these observations because they’re struggling.
Joel Embiid is different. He was shooting just 41 percent from the field entering the Sixers’ game against Detroit on Thursday with the lowest points per shot attempt of his career, per CTG. Last season, Embiid shot 47 percent from the midrange, including 48 percent from the long midrange, which was a better conversion rate than Stephen Curry. This season, Embiid has fallen to 35 percent from the long midrange and 39 percent from midrange overall. He’s not outright blaming the ball. But, yes, it’s bothering him.
You can be sure these guys aren’t alone. When the ball was sent to players prior to the season, Nikola Jokic noted that it would, at random times, just slip out of his hands.
Even with the old Spalding balls, it was a known thing that the newer the ball, the slicker it felt. Every player will tell you they prefer broken-in balls and always try to use those for the games. But all these Wilson balls are new. That might be part of it. But until they are broken in around the league, there’s no question it’s an adjustment that some players are making easier than others.