Wilson debuts an airless 3D-printed basketball in the NBA dunk contest
A hole in your basketball is typically not a good thing, but Wilson's bizarre new Airless basketball prototype treats them as a feature. Indeed, it's probably more hole than ball, and yet it's said to bounce and respond like a regulation NBA rock.
Like many of the airless tire concepts we've seen, Wilson's airless ball maintains its bounce using a highly engineered elastic structure instead of pneumatic pressure. In this case, the company went with a series of hexagonal holes, arranged into a 3D lattice, while also replicating the typical binding pattern of a leather ball, so players can get their fingers into the seams as per normal.
A structure this complex can only be 3D-printed, so that's what Wilson did, in some kind of "research-grade" polymer material, which was then coated in black, and sent off to Wilson's "NBA test facility in Ada, Ohio," for "rigorous testing."
The results of this testing are not yet clear, although Houston Rockets forward "KJ" Martin has been shown giving it a bit of a bounce in the heavily edited video below.
Indeed, Martin brought the prototypes out during All-Star weekend for a quick father-and son act, which you can see at about 3:30 in the video below. On the evidence presented, it certainly seems to bounce about right and go through the hoop with alacrity when thrown into it by a 6-foot 7-inch superhuman.
Wilson says the Airless Prototype is designed to match the performance of a regular NBA ball as closely as possible; including the weight and bounce response of a leather ball inflated to regulation pressure. As a frequent hoop enjoyer myself, I'm fascinated to know what the grip's like in your hand, how it reacts to spin on a bounce pass or off the backboard, and whether the free movement of air through the carcass affects the aerodynamics much on a long shot. Would this thing be better or worse on a windy day?
The benefits are fairly clear; as with airless tires, you'll never have to pump these things up, and no puncture is going to put an end to your session. On the other hand, they'll probably start to pick up the odd bit of debris, which'll rattle around in there. And while they can probably be expected to last a fair while, it'd be interesting to know how the material stands up to years of hard bouncing and clanging off double rims; will the polymer lose elasticity and bounce over time?
Wilson's not making these things to sell them at this point, and neither is it pushing the NBA to use them in games. That's probably for the best, ballers can be a superstitious bunch, and if Steph Curry missed his first three shots with an airless ball he'd probably never want to see one again. No, this is a concept ball, a test bed and an exploration of future possibilities. Concept balls! What a time we live in!
Check out a video talking through the design and build process below.