On opening night at Barclays Center, the New York Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA draft, made a last-second 3-pointer to defeat the Indiana Fever. It was almost too perfect: A new season starting with a new star spectacularly announcing her presence on a new stage.
And she did it with a new ball.
Ahead of its historic 25th season, the WNBA announced plans for a number of initiatives, including new jerseys, an in-season competition called the Commissioner’s Cup and the selection of the league’s 25 greatest players. They also introduced a new basketball as part of their burgeoning partnership with Wilson. Through the first few weeks of play, it’s drawing rave reviews.
“I love the basketball,” Ionescu said. “It’s really easy to dribble, it feels good in hand and has a lot of grip on passing as well. So I actually really enjoy the new basketball, and I honestly think it’s better than the one we played with last.”
Grip is a common theme among players who speak highly of the new ball. While the old one wasn’t so bad that players were openly demanding a new one, there were some complaints about slipperiness.
“I ain’t gonna lie, bro. The new basketball is everything,” Indiana Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell said. “I feel like I’m back in high school with that AAU feel. No offense to Spalding, but the balls was always slick. Your hands had to get sweaty a little bit to get that grip you was looking for. I feel like the ball now, that grip is a foundation into the ball, which is really dope.”
Having a good feel for the ball makes everything easier, whether that’s simply dribbling up court to set up the offense, or flying around a pick to catch-and-shoot. That’s why improving the grip was one of the primary goals for Wilson as they went about building the new ball. During the research and design phase, most of their conversations with players centered on how the ball felt and reacted to different movements.
“We feel confident we were able to improve in-game performance around wet/dry grip and overall feel,” Kevin Murphy, the general manager of Wilson’s team sports division, told CBS Sports.
The NBA introduced a new ball in 2006 and it was a resounding failure. While the WNBA league office wouldn’t comment specifically on whether or not that fiasco informed this process, their decisions this time around sure make it seem like it did.
From the beginning, the WNBA included its players in the project. This may seem obvious considering they’re the ones who are going to be using the ball, but the NBA failed to do so back in ’06. Not only were NBA players never consulted about the new ball, they weren’t even given a chance to test it prior to the season, which resulted in the NBPA filing a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
During the initial testing phase last summer, players in the WNBA bubble received prototypes to test. They were expected to provide feedback, and when the final version was ready in January of this year, every team was sent two game balls for players to use in workouts. Later on, Las Vegas Aces center Liz Cambage was named to Wilson’s advisory board.
In terms of design, the WNBA and Wilson were careful not to change too much. When the NBA switched things up in 2006, they moved to a two-panel design with a microfiber composite material. Among other problems, that new material made the ball more inconsistent and left players with cuts on their fingers. Uproar from the players that season was so swift and severe that the NBA abandoned the new ball after just a few months and went back to their old one.
The WNBA and Wilson decided to maintain the classic eight-panel design and a composite leather material. That was important for two reasons. One, it allowed Wilson to focus all of its efforts on specific performance upgrades, such as grip and how the ball reacts to sweat. Two, it meant a much shorter acclimation time for the players, which is especially important in the WNBA, where the season is less than half as long as the NBA.
“I think when the basketball isn’t as well received, that adjustment period can be difficult,” Derek Fisher, who played for the Utah Jazz in 2006 and now coaches the Los Angeles Sparks, said. “In this case, from what I can gather, most players like the new basketball and really feel comfortable with it. I’m not sure if the adjustment will feel as great, because they really do like the way it feels in their hands, the way it comes off their hands when they shoot.”
Though a few suggested the Wilson ball is bouncier than its predecessor, the players generally agreed that the transition has been smooth. That’s evident on the court, where the league shooting averages and turnover numbers are right in line with where they’ve been in the past few seasons.
All in all, that’s a win for the league. The players love the feel of the new ball, and it hasn’t had any negative effects on play. Barring any unforeseen issues, we shouldn’t hear about the ball at all moving forward, which is exactly how it should be when it comes to equipment. Even the Dallas Wings’ Arike Ogunbawale, who admitted that “the first time I worked out and shot with the ball, I dribbled and the ball went almost to the sky,” came around after spending more time with it.
“I think that was really what training camp is for,” Ogunbowale said. “If they can’t get used to it in two to three weeks, they might as well get off the court.”