You love basketball. You love it so much you play every day. Maybe you play in a city league, are trying to make the school team, or want to be better than all your teammates. That means you have to practice all the time. You have to shoot hundreds of free throws and hundreds more shots from inside and outside the paint. You shoot until you’re tired, and then keep shooting — because nothing will make you better at basketball than muscle memory. But once you commit, how do you know whether or not all that work is actually paying off? You might feel like you shot the ball well during your hour-long practice, but do you know that for sure?
This is the problem that Wilson is trying to solve with the Wilson X Connected Basketball. Yes, I know we’re all reeling from the recent rush of companies trying to push the idea of the Internet of Things, so the idea of a connected basketball might sound goofy. But despite the ball’s flaws, and an unruly price tag of $199, it’s a lot of fun to use. It also signals the start of a evolution of the way we play sports.
The best thing to do with any sport is to start with the basics. The Wilson X ball is, from any angle, just a basketball. There’s no charging port or USB dongle — just a bunch of orange rubber and some air. Inside is a little tube that’s smaller than the size of an AA battery, and in that tube is an accelerometer, gyroscope, a bluetooth chip, and a battery that Wilson says will outlast the life of the ball. (Or, as it was put to me, you can shoot the ball more than 300 times a day, for seven days a week, for 52 weeks a year, before it will start to die.)
This tech is married to an extremely smart algorithm that it says can tell whether you’ve made or missed your shot, which Wilson trained by shooting it more than 50,000 times. The algorithm not only can tell when the ball’s been shot, but it knows the difference between when it’s gone through the hoop as opposed to banking off the rim or backboard, or missing everything altogether. The only hangup is the rim has to have a net of some kind — if you play at a park where there are no nets on the rims, the ball’s smart capabilities will be moot.
The ball pairs just like any other Bluetooth device to an app on your iPhone (Android users will have to wait until later this fall) and can track your shots in a number of different modes. There’s an open mode that lets you just shoot for as long as you like, a mode that focuses in on just free throws, and two game modes — one where a clock is counting down and the only way to stop it is to keep hitting more shots, and one where the shots you make contribute to a simulated full basketball game. There’s no real support for more than one player, save for taking turns, and while Wilson says that option might come down the road, it’s more focused on changing the solo practice experience right now.
Figuring out your shooting percentage without doing any math is addictive
When you finish using any of these modes the app will give you a heaping of different stats. You get your overall shooting percentage, plus the number of made shots versus the number of attempts. You get these same statistics for shots taken from 2-point and 3-point range, too. You also get a graph of your shooting percentage across the entire round of practice, so you can see where your performance drops off and where it picks up. I’m a pretty lousy shooter — I haven’t played basketball since middle school — but all of this data made the Wilson X ball experience addictive.
Music and sound effects permeate the app experience, too, and while you could just wait to finish before you check your phone to see how you performed, the best way to use the Wilson X ball is to hook your phone up to a Bluetooth speaker or some headphones. The app will give you real-time feedback when you brick and sink shots, playing the sound of ball-against-rim when you miss or — in what I’d consider a poor choice about the right motivation — a cash register noise when you make one. There’s also a "coach," but it’s little more than a handful of canned responses to your makes and misses, and it’s certainly not encouraging.
Because all this works over Bluetooth, the experience can be a little frustrating. The signal has to go from the ball to your phone and then to your speaker setup of choice, which means there’s noticeable lag. That’s fine in the untimed, free shooting mode, but if you’re playing against the clock, that lag makes a huge, frustrating difference. And while the ball connects pretty fast, the connection can be tenuous if you’re in an area with lots of Bluetooth interference.
The ball has its limitations, like how you have to shoot from at least 7 feet away from the rim (so no counting of layups or dunks). But the most notable one is the accuracy. Wilson claims the ball is 97 percent accurate at counting makes and misses, which sounds unbelievable — and that’s probably because it is. In the two weeks I had with the ball, I’d place accuracy closer to 80 percent.
That inconsistency still wasn’t enough to discourage me from using it, but it’s something to consider if you’re going to rely on this to track each of your daily and weekly practices. And this is really what Wilson is pushing as the reason for this ball existing in the first place. (Other smart basketballs exist, but they focus on things like counting dribbles or tracking shot arc, and typically require extra equipment if you want to count your makes and misses.)
There’s also — unsurprisingly — a social aspect to the app. You can compare your performance to that of your friends (provided that they have the ball, too), unlock achievements, and overlay the stats from one of your sessions on a selfie so you can try to impress your friends and followers with your unbelievable 3-point skills.
That also means that Wilson X ball isn’t just about bringing data into the equation, it also increases accountability. Kids who want to get better at shooting so they can make the team (or keep their place on it) have to practice furiously, and the Wilson X ball is a tool that could allow them fully focus on shooting by leaving the counting to the technology. Coach told you to take 500 shots over the weekend? Now you can do that and send her the results from inside the app. You want to get your overall 3-point average up above 30 percent? Practice until you do, and then show the world.
There is an almost sinister component to that if you look at it in the right light. While there’s no question that you’re better off with accurate data about your personal practice regimen, it’s hard to ignore the idea that coaches — or maybe more likely, overzealous parents — will use this new source of data to hound kids who are shooting. And then there’s the question of "how much data is too much?" Will obsessing over short-term consistency hurt your long-term goals?
Will coaches — or parents — abuse this extra data?
Of course, these are only problems if the Wilson X ball becomes a pervasive technology, and not just a niche toy. Its $199 price tag will likely resign it to the latter, but there’s no doubt that this is part of the start of something big. At the press event where Wilson unveiled the ball, reps for the company weren’t shy about how eager they are to bring this tech to the myriad other sports that Wilson is involved with. It won’t be long before the idea of connected sports equipment is the norm, whether you play baseball, tennis, or yes, even volleyball.
But basketball is a sport with one of the lowest barriers to entry, so it makes sense that this is where Wilson is starting. And while a few other companies are also trying to smarten up basketballs, they make you buy even more equipment to track your shots. So if you just want some hard data about how close or far you are from being like Mike, or LeBron, or your friend down the street, you might want to save up some cash before you buy your next ball.