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NBA stars are missing 3-pointers this season. Is a new ball really to blame?

Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers says the new Wilson ball doesn't feel the same as the old Spalding one.
Katelyn Mulcahy
Getty Images
Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers says the new Wilson ball doesn't feel the same as the old Spalding one.

The NBA has been tough to watch this year.

Compared to this same point in previous seasons, the 3-point percentage is the lowest since 2015-16 as everyone from Jayson Tatum to Damian Lillard to Bradley Beal seems to be struggling to find the basket.

My fantasy basketball team is in shambles. My team is shooting 43% from the field, and my high school friends are roasting me in the group chat. Something's gotta give.

There have been several theories for the shooting woes, including the NBA's new refereeing rules. But the most intriguing one: The new Wilson basketball is to blame.

Players cry foul

After 38 years, the NBA and its longtime provider of orange and leather, Spalding, parted ways, and the NBA inked a new deal with Wilson. With this comes a new game ball.

Wilson is adamant their ball is a virtual replica of the Spalding one, but some players don't agree.

"It's a different basketball. It don't have the same touch and softness that the Spalding ball had," LA Clippers' Paul George said in a recent postgame interview.

"And you'll see this year, it's gonna be a lot of bad misses ... I think you've seen a lot of air balls so far this season."

Others skeptical about the new ball include Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid, as well as reigning league MVP Nikola Jokić, who complained about its lack of grip.

Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum, president of the players association, has been crowdsourcing feedback on the ball from others in the NBPA.

Some think this is overblown. Or at least premature.

In a statement, the NBA told NPR that comparing the shooting percentages so far this season to previous years' was "difficult" because "percentages fluctuate so much throughout each season."

A physics professor weighs in

This isn't the first time the NBA has had ball problems.

In the summer of 2006, the league introduced a synthetic basketball as a replacement for the leather one. Players hated it. Some complained it cut their hands.

And then, Kaushik De — a physics professor at the University of Texas, Arlington — and his team released a white paper unpacking all the differences between the leather ball and the synthetic one.

This naturally ruffled some feathers.

"We studied the friction and we found that when the balls were dry, friction was almost identical between the balls. But when the balls got wet, it changed a lot," De told NPR last week.

With the glowing endorsement of a giddy Mavericks CEO Mark Cuban — a vocal critic of the ball — the paper went viral that summer, and the NBA ultimately went back to the original ball midway through the season.

As for this new ball, it doesn't seem to be as jarring a change. It's still leather, for one. But NBA players train in extremely specific conditions, so De thinks even subtle changes in manufacturing can make a difference.

CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers is canvassing feedback on the Wilson ball.
Jason Miller / Getty Images
Getty Images
Union President CJ McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers is canvassing for feedback on the Wilson ball.

"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," he said.

"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."

There is no word yet on the future of this ball. But for now, it seems like the league will wait and adjust.

Let's hope they figure it out soon so I don't lose the $50 I put into this fantasy league.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.
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