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Wilson’s new smart basketball never met Tom Hanks, but it turns jumpshot training into a game

Chauncey Billups, championship basketball player for the Detroit Pistons, spoke recently about how the game is these days; “Everything is analytics now,” and he’s right. Wilson, maker of pro sports gear for more than 100 years agrees with him. In fact, with his nickname “the Clutch,” Billups is the perfect spokesperson for the firm’s new Wilson X ball, the smart basketball for shooters that turns training into a game. He showed off the new ball at a Wilson event in New York City last month.

Wilson is the official basketball provider of the NCAA, and the company naturally takes the game very seriously. Yet, as I watched Mike Keuhne and Alan Davenport (general manager of the Basketball Division and global commercial director of the firm, respectively), getting rebounds and taking shots, they couldn’t wipe the grins off their faces, and it was obvious they love the sport and still have fun playing. They showed off how honing your jump shot could be made into a game, and it’s crazy how addictive beating your high score can become.

Chauncy Billups Wilson X

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The free Wilson X app echoes the menu of a basketball video game (NBA2K anyone?) and focuses specifically on shots made from seven feet out. The app has four modes: Free Range, Free Throw, Buzzer Beater, and Game Time.

In Free Range you hit shots from anywhere on the  (again, at least seven feet out). Free Throw handles shots from the line. In Buzzer Beater making the shot adds time, the further the shot, the more it extends the clock. Game Time is like a game simulator; with the commentator tracking your performance and a simulated enemy making shots, it’s a good way to get game experience when you’re practicing alone.

Wilson X product pro

Each mode tracks your stats, including shots attempted and made, time, range, and others, allowing you to learn your strengths and train to be the guy everyone passes to in the clutch. You’ll know everything from your sweet spot on the court to your three-point percentages.

Kevin Krysiak, global director of innovation at Wilson, explained that the Wilson X ball uses accelerometers in conjunction with machine learning and pattern recognition to figure out when you make it and when you miss. “Over the course of two years we took more than 50,000 shots and looked at the acceleration profiles of everything from a five-foot-five kid that shoots from the hip, to a six-foot-seven former professional player that has the flattest shot you’ve ever seen. What does it look like in their hand right as they release, and flat-lines as it flies through the air; impacts the rim, impacts the ground? Then, boom that’s your pattern; that’s your shot.”

When you start up the app, you spin the ball in the air to start a connection, and the algorithm recognizes shots in the ball’s movements thereafter. The Wilson X uses Bluetooth to connect with the Wilson app on your phone. Sign in via Wi-Fi, and then head out to play. I had a little trouble getting connected, which can be a major pain if you’re out on the court without data acess, but once I was up and running it was fun. The ball is not rechargeable, but it’s good for 100,000 shots. The math equals that out to 300 shots a day, seven days a week for a year. After that it just becomes a regular basketball. You can keep track of how many shots you’ve taken overall in your profile.

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By taking a look at your stats, you can draw your own conclusions about your shots. If you see your percentage flagging after a certain amount of time, it would be logical to work on your stamina. That was part of the design of the game modes; getting kids — and anyone really — playing better for longer.

“I didn’t have the technology that this ball has,” Billups said. “I can only imagine how much better I would have gotten. I grew up thinking spend four, five, six hours in the gym you’re working hard. I started to understand as I got a little older there’s a difference between working hard and working smart.”

Future plans for the app include a coaching mode, wearable versions and possibly connected competition modes, which won’t be included in the iPhone app available now or the Android app to come in October. The Wilson X smart basketball is available in 29.5 and 28.5 inch sizes on Wilson’s website for $200.

That’s a little pricey considering a regular ball will run you $30. On the one hand, you’re paying $170 for an app that can be finicky without solid Internet access. On the other hand, when the Wilson X works, it works really well. The app is engaging and more likely to keep players playing on than a regular ball.

The Wilson X is one to watch, and arguably a must have for those getting really serious about their game, especially if they generally practice in gyms (with Wi-Fi). It would be particularly attractive if its price drops at some point, given how informative and fun it  Just make sure you have data access on the court.