Hip problems knocked me out of the game of basketball for five years. From age 58 to 63, I didn’t play basketball at all. In the middle of that period, I had my left hip replaced. When I finally decided to try playing again, I discovered that my jump shot, the source of my pride for close to 50 years, had become an exercise in humility.
I’ve had to relearn the mechanics of shooting step by step, while making accomodations for slowness afoot and limited jumping ability. Having taken shooting for granted for decades, it has been amazing to discover how many elements go into shooting properly, and how much muscle building I’ve needed to do to achieve proper form. Coming off a pick and squaring up to the basket, for example, has become easier since I started regular leg and core strength workouts. When my legs get tired and my shot clanks off the front of the rim, I have to tell myself to arc the ball higher.
How much higher? I don’t know exactly. Aim for the front of the rim and put a nice arc on the ball, a voice from long ago tells me. That was the prime directive I picked up as a kid, and it has served me well. But now, at age 68, I’m wondering whether I should rethink that basic commandment.
A tech-savvy friend told me that she had heard about a sensor-loaded basketball tied into smartphone apps that could provide instant feedback on shooting and dribbling. It’s called the 94Fifty basketball, the name reflecting the dimensions of a full-sized basketball court. That tip has led me into the arena of high-tech basketball instruction coupled to the geometry of shooting.
The 94Fifty basketball, made by InfoMotion Sports Technologies, looks like a typical indoor-outdoor ball. Sensors inside it can measure such things as the shooter’s release angle, the entry angle into the rim and ball rotation. Shooters can measure their release time – how long it takes to get off a shot after the ball hits their hands. Dribbling power and speed can be analyzed. The 94Fifty basketball sells for $250 to $300. Here’s a review of the ball and the apps related to it.
A company called Noah Basketball makes pricey devices that measure the arc and depth of every shot taken while giving feedback to the shooter via various apps. The Noah devices, aimed at the high school and college market, sell in the $4,500 to $5,600 range.
After reading about these high-tech feedback systems, I wondered about the science behind determining optimal arc levels and ball rotation. I came across a fascinating 2012 article in Popular Mechanics magazine that explores the mechanics of free-throw shooting. It begins with an old-school description of how shooters should align their body to the basket, bend their knees, position the ball on their hand and release it.
The article then went into studies by North Carolina State University mechanical engineering professor Larry Silverberg and colleague Chau Tran, who wrote a software program to analyze three-dimensional, computer-simulated free-throw trajectories. “By simulating millions of shots we could see patterns that tend to confirm best practices,” they said. Their research allowed them to establish a few guidelines for a 6-footer shooting from the foul line: aim toward the back of the rim spin, elevate the ball to 52 degrees to the horizontal and try for three complete revolutions of the ball before it goes through the rim. Do all this at a perfectly smooth and consistent speed.
“Imagine you drew a line from where the ball is released to the hoop—that’s the angle from the horizontal,” Silverberg said. “A good way to visualize this is aiming pretty close to the top of the backboard at the top of [the ball's] trajectory.”
The recommendation to shoot toward the back of the rim instead of the front shocked me. Their studies, however, found that the sweet spot is actually 2.82 inches past the center of the hoop. Silverberg and Tran found that aiming for the center of the basket actually decreases the likelihood of a successful shot by almost 3 percent. Great shooters hit the back of the rim more than they swish the ball through the net.
John Carter, CEO of Noah Basketball, provided data from his company’s devices that support the researchers’ simulations. Noah data showed that entry-angle perfection for a free-throw is around 43 degrees. And, unlike the launch angle, which varies with player height, the entry angle is the same for all shooters. “If a player shoots flat, the hole closes up,” Carter says. “There’s a sweet spot in the mid-forties where you can have a little bit of variation in the arc, but the ball goes in at almost the same distance from back of rim every time.” Even though an entry angle of about 50 degrees corresponds to a perfect swish, the Noah data showed that players’ overall shooting percentage started to decrease above 45 degrees, meaning that great shooters hit the back of the rim more often than they swish.
I plan to refocus my shooting from the front of the rim toward the back and see what happens. No reason why an old dog can’t learn new tricks.