The Complete Guide to Basketballs

Which basketball is ideal for your game? Before you head to the court, discover what makes one basketball different from another so you can choose the one that’s best for you.

September 08, 2017

Have you ever noticed how some basketballs sound different when they bounce? You might hear one with a solid-sounding thunk thunk, and another that has more of a reverberation —kind of a sharper thwak.

Whether you want to play like the pros with an official size ball, or just looking for something for your next pickup game, here’s what you need to know before buying a basketball.


Looking to teach your little one the art of dribbling? There’s a ball for that. The seven-inch mini basketball is a good option for small children who are just starting out and learning to play around with a basketball. Mini basketballs can also be used for skill training for older athletes too.

But what if you want to get serious?

Depending on your league, age and gender, there are three commonly used sizes from which to choose.

Most adult men’s leagues — which range from ages 13 and up — use a size 7 basketball, which is 29.5" in circumference. By comparison, most women’s leagues and youth leagues that cater to children ages 9 – 12 use a size 6 ball, which comes in at 28.5".

Finally, a size 5 basketball is a full two inches smaller than the men’s size, settling at 27.5". This ball is intended for children under 9.


The basketball’s material is another feature to take into consideration, although material may largely depend on league requirements if you’re playing competitively.

There are three basic types of material: leather, synthetic (also known as composite) and rubber.

When the pros play, they’re using leather basketballs. While this material may be expensive, it’s soft and supple. Its biggest advantage is a boost in control — even when your palms are sweaty, leather balls are made to maintain a high level of grip. It also helps avoid damage to the wooden flooring of indoor courts. It’s also important to note that leather basketballs should only be used on indoor courts because concrete will rapidly degrade their finish. Plus, they require a break-in period before using them competitively.

Synthetic balls offer a fairly successful middle ground in terms of performance. First, there’s no need to break in this material before using it. Second, it can be used both indoors and outdoors. Third, it’s also very durable. You may find that synthetic scuffs up the court a little, but it should buff out with some elbow grease.

Rubber basketballs are generally made for outdoor courts and called outdoor basketballs. They can offer extra bounce and durability. They can also be a good option for beginners who are just learning or for recreational play.

Also, if you guessed that material would have the largest impact on the sound of your dribble, you’d be right. That satisfying thunk thunk sound comes from a nicely broken-in leather ball, whereas the more piercing thwak comes from a rubber ball.


Most basketballs have a burnt orange color, but some are other colors, like black, blue, yellow and even multi-colored.

Most leagues and teams require a standard orange ball. The other colorful options are more about style, rather than function.

If you’re looking for a competitive-play basketball, be sure to check with your team for more guidelines.


If you’re working on developing your skills for competitive play, consider training basketballs.

The traditional trainer is a weighted rubber ball, weighing usually double or more than your average basketball, and are used to develop strength and form for dribbling, passing and shooting as well as ball-handling skills.

To help improve your shot, try a shooter’s basketball. With precise markers to show proper hand placement, these basketballs are designed to develop your shooting technique.

Another option is a connected basketball, which uses technology to aid you in developing a number of skills. These digital “smartballs” may track your shooting percentage, makes, misses and other stats. Many “smartballs” allow you to challenge friends over social media or send stats to your coach, and even allow you to compete in simulated games, so you get a sense of how you’d perform. Furthermore, some models even have built-in workouts and drills, and include game elements like leveling up.

These “smart” balls use Bluetooth to connect to a smartphone, where you can review all of this data, which can be a useful tool for advanced players looking to spot weaknesses in his or her play.

Identifying the basketball you need is as simple as knowing its purpose and then considering its size, material and color. You can take comfort in knowing, when you hit the court, that you understand the ins and outs of your ball.

Who knows, you may even be able to point out a teammate’s ball material just by hearing their dribble.