As a lifelong basketball lover I’ve come to understand the importance of playing with a decent basketball on a clean court. Whether indoors or out, having the right tool for the job will make all the difference in both your ability to play effectively and the feel of the ball in your hands as you make that buzzer beater shot.
I’ve played with a large number of different indoor and outdoor basketballs and I wanted to go over some of my favorites, what I like and dislike about them and which I think are the best outdoor basketballs on the market. This will take us on a journey into the deep dark realms of the gym equipment room to determine which balls can compete and which come out flat.
What is the Difference - Outdoor Basketball Courts vs Indoor Basketball Courts
Indoor courts include surfaces such as gym floors made of wood, low pile gym carpets, rubber flooring and other synthetic materials
An outdoor court generally consists of a solid, outdoor surface with basketball hoops where a ball can be bounced. This court might be made of cement, asphalt, packed pea gravel or even hard packed dirt.
What's the Difference Between an Indoor Basketball and an Outdoor Basketball?
That’s a bit of a loaded question. In some ways there are huge, massive differences that can totally destroy your basketball and then in other regards there are absolutely zero differences and make the topic seem almost mute.
The big difference lies in the material used to create the different game basketballs. For example, a quality leather basketball is commonly made of full grain leather. A composite basketball is made of chemically treated and reinforced vinyl. The rubber basketballs are made of, well, rubber … as well as nylon threading.
Where Should I use Which Type of Basketball?
Knowing what type of basketball you should be using and where you should be using it can be tricky at times. Here are the strict rules to remember:
Outdoor Basketball or Indoor Basketball - Does it Really Matter?
Actually it really does. Each type of basketball has a specific use in mind while being designed. Manufacturers then select the best materials based on their design goals, each with different qualities and properties that help improve the balls performance.
Some materials such as leather provide a great feel and have good gripping qualities so that the ball doesn’t slip out of the basketball players hands while catching a hard pass. Even with its 35000 individual grip pebbles, using a leather ball outdoors would cause the ball to become slippery as dust and dirt collect on it. A slippery ball can cause injury to the players or have a negative effect on the players ability to dribble a basketball if not properly cleaned before a game.
Composite has good durability and an overall pleasing feel allowing the ball to be used competitively indoors and out. This is the material most indoor outdoor balls are made of. It requires very little if any maintenance. However when used in a professional capacity such as in the NBA, the high speed of the passes can actually cause small cuts on the players hands when they catch the ball. This doesn’t seem to be an issue for high school players however.
Rubber basketballs are very inexpensive to manufacture and completely waterproof making it a good choice for use in the pool or for children. Problems may arise however when using a rubber ball on an indoor, wooden court. The ball and the floor work together adding too much extra bounce. Rubber balls also don’t offer the same feeling of control when compared to the leather or composite balls.
You can see that each material has its place and purpose and so it really does matter which ball you use on an indoor or outdoor court.has
What Should I Know Before Buying an Outdoor Basketball?
There are a number of key factors that any would-be outdoor street basketball purchaser should know before spending any money.
What does an Outdoor Basketball Cost?
With the vastly different cost in materials and the unique design techniques required to make each type of basketball it’s no wonder the costs vary so wildly. That being said, the best outdoor basketballs will not necessarily be the most expensive one. The price of a composite outdoor basketball can pale in comparison to a high quality, full grain leather indoor basketball but this is really an instance where you get what you pay for.
So what do US prices look like for different types of basketballs?
- A quality rubber basketball will usually run in the neighbourhood of $10 – $20
- A good synthetic leather or composite leather street basketball can often be anywhere from $25 – $65
- A quality leather basketball can range anywhere from $60 – $170
What Level of Basketball Player Are You?
Players use different basketball sizes and types depending on their age, sex and what level they are playing at competitively.
Basketball Type for Children
Children may prefer to use rubber basketballs. It’s quite easy to find a ball that’s lighter in weight and due to it being so inexpensive it’s less of an issue if the children don’t take as good care of the basketball as they should. It’s durability means that it’s also quite forgiving when left out in adverse weather conditions or used in the water.
Basketball Type for Beginners
Beginners are likely best served by using rubber or composite indoor outdoor street basketballs. These players will find themselves spending time playing in the driveway or on outdoor courts. If you must pick between the two and you are a teen or adult than go with composite. A smaller sized composite is also a good choice for an elementary school game basketball. A number of schools have set up teams to help teach children leadership principles. 
Basketball Type for Intermediate or High School Players
Highschool basketball is often the beginning of competitive ball and so a more professional grade ball should be used. The majority of their playing time will likely be spent on indoor courts with the occasional outdoor game. Composite indoor outdoor is probably the best street basketball type for this level of play.
Basketball Type for Advanced and Professional Players
Any competitive basketball beyond highschool should certainly be played with a very high quality composite ball or a full grain leather ball. These players will be on indoor courts 99% of the time. The NBA at one point switched over to playing with composite basketballs but had to revert back to leather basketballs at the request of the players.
Keep in mind that the goal is not really to work your way up to a leather ball but rather to play with the ball that handles the best for you on the court it’s designed for. That’s probably going to be leather or composite in the majority of situations. I have played with both and I have to say that there are some incredibly well designed composite basketballs that rival many of the leather balls I’ve seen.
What Materials are Basketballs Made From?
Basketballs are made from a variety of different materials and it is these materials that determine where and how a ball is best used.
Full Grain Leather Basketballs
There is an Important distinction between products labeled as “Full Grain Leather” and “Genuine Leather”. The quality between the two grades of leather couldn’t be larger. Full grain leather means that the leather is 100% genuine, no messin around, real as real gets, leather straight for the back end of the cow. It’s the complete solid grain and not made up of left over parts pieced back together which allow for greater chances of tears and are less durable. It’s the highest quality of leather available on the market. Full grain leather will normally far outlast any stitching used in product manufacturing. This explains its hefty price tag.
Genuine Leather Basketballs
Genuine leather is indeed still leather. It encompasses ANY type of leather and technically includes “Full Grain Leather” as well so there is no question about its authenticity. However it’s also essentially another word for “garbage” leather when it comes to marketing. It can be made of several animal skins and is normally made from the parts that are less durable. It is often chemically treated to improve it’s feel, look and durability. A manufacturer would never label a product that is made from full grain leather as “Genuine Leather” as this label carries a negative connotation in the leather world.
“Genuine Leather” is a marketing term used to disguise and sell low quality leather at high end prices. Imagine you pay top dollar for a beautiful “Genuine Leather” basketball only to find out that a lower priced composite ball would have outlasted and outperformed for years. By labeling it “Genuine Leather” the manufacturers are telling the consumer that it is indeed made of leather and then hoping they don’t ask any further questions about quality. 
Note About Leather Basketballs
Aside from the price point there is one other slight downside to the full grain and genuine leathers. When brand new and just out of the box the ball seems overly firm. This is normal as all freshly purchased leather basketballs need to be broken in. It’s a process that can actually take a few months but not to worry. The breaking in process simply consists of playing with the ball. The natural oils from your hands condition the ball helping it to gain more and more traction for an overall better grip in the long run.
This is something to be aware of if you have an important game coming up. In this case you may want to hold off on using the brand new leather ball. It can be frustrating to players as the ball may seem slippery before the break in period is over.
You should never use a leather ball on an outdoor court. In fact you shouldn’t even dribble the ball outdoors while on your way to the gym. Water can also damage the ball so be sure to wipe the ball periodically with a dry towel or anytime it accidentally gets wet.
Composite Leather or Synthetic Leather Basketballs
Composite leather basketballs make a fantastic alternative to full grain leather balls. They have a similar feel and playing experience without the higher price tag and offer a great deal of water resistance. Contrary to many beliefs, real leather is not used in the creation of composite leather.
Composite leather is designed using a chemical bath of powdered vinyl which is tinted and then applied to a thick, leather-like paper. The vinyl is then oven heated and dried taking on the same texture as the paper.
A second coat of vinyl with a thickening agent is then applied to give it shape and structure. This now double layered vinyl coating is again heated causing the thickening agent to react, expand and harden into place.
Once dried, a fabric sheet is glued to the back side and a machine peels away the original piece of paper revealing a textured vinyl layer. At this point the manufacturer may also print patterns on it to give a varnished or two toned look.
A final coating solution is applied to increase the new synthetic leathers durability and the product is tested through repetitive rubbing, stretching and burning to verify its abilities.
Basketballs made from this extremely durable substance have many benefits and very few cons. They play well both indoors and outdoors. They are water resistant and fire retardant (in case your on a hot streak :), and they are fairly inexpensive to manufacture when compared to full grain leather.
What’s really nice about many of the name brand companies that manufacture composite basketballs is that they ship the ball pre-inflated. Just open the box and your ready to play.
Rubber basketballs don’t have a lot to them. They are basically a rubber covered balloon. The Rubber is pressed through a machine over and over to flatten and stretch it to a very thin size of approximately 0.5 to 1mm. The rubber is then cut and formed into a round shape creating a bladder or balloon that is able to hold air.
Nylon thread is then woven around the ball over and over to give it strength. This helps it maintain a round shape and protect that inner bladder. This nylon covered bladder is then covered with another protective layer of outer rubber pieces and any stenciling or printing is completed.
Rough edges will be trimmed at this point and any final touches such as painting of the deep channel design lines is done by hand. Balls are then inflated and checked for leaks after sitting for 24 hours. Final testing includes shooting the ball thousands of times and then measuring the diameter in several areas to ensure the ball has maintained its shape. The basketballs are then deflated and shipped out.
The benefits of rubber basketballs is that they are completely waterproof, very durable and often dirt cheap, hovering between the $10-$20 mark.
What Basketballs Have the Best Level of Grip
Different basketballs have varying levels of grip. Grip can come from a number of areas including the number of pebbles or bumps on the balls surface, how clean the ball is and the material type the ball was made with.
The more grip the better the ball handling abilities and the less chance the ball will slip from your hands during game play. By design, leather has the most grip followed by composite and then rubber however remember that a non-broken in leather ball is quite slippery and an overly dirty composite ball can get quite slippery as well.
The Overall Feel of Different Basketballs
Different basketball materials offer a different feel when practicing or during a game.
Leather basketballs once broken in will give the player a really nice sense of ball control. The pebbling becomes better worked in and produces an area that allows the ball to stick to the players hand a bit.
Composite indoor outdoor basketballs offer a bit of the same overall feel right out of the box. That being said, there really is a difference (however small it may be) between the leather and composite when it comes to catching a pass and the release of the ball from your hands on a shot. The composite is a bit more harsh or rough. These differences may not mean much in the overall game play so if the price is a factor, your getting a somewhat similar feel in the composite at a better price point.
Rubber has a somewhat mundane feel to it in my opinion. It bounces, it has decent grip, but there is no real satisfaction to its overall feel. Would you notice the difference between rubber and composite in a game? Yes. Would it be enough to make you not want to play? Probably not.
The Best Outdoor Basketballs Should Be Durable
A well looked after, high quality basketball should last a good number of years especially an indoor ball however an outdoor basketball takes a lot more beating. It’s exposed to the harsh pounding against the pavement for hours on end and the pebbles, sand and dirt that seem to frequent outdoor courts can mar and slice the balls outer layer of protection.
This abuse and the wear and tear of even a single game can be quite extensive. Luckily a solidly built composite indoor outdoor ball can withstand these rigors for a few years without any issues. Choose a high quality composite ball and store it indoors when not in use for years of outdoor fun.
Using an indoor ball outdoors will significantly reduce the balls lifespan and void any sort of warranty associated with it so play with and store any leather balls indoors.
Do the Looks of a Basketball Matter?
I would have a hard time sacrificing functionality for looks in a basketball but ….. they do have some really cool looking basketballs out there.
If your interested in some seriously competitive gaming than the looks should not really be a factor. The standard orange and black look pretty cool in my opinion anyway.
For those just playing for fun and who like a showy looking ball than by all means, go for it. Just test the ball out first if you can in the store or send it back if it’s lacking in quality if it’s shipped to you. Basketball is a lifestyle choice and the look of your ball can play a large part in that lifestyle.
If your the creative type, you may even be able to dress up a standard, high quality ball. They have spray paints for rubber surfaces that may work well for this.
The Weight of a Basketball
I’ve played with basketballs that carry too much weight and ones that are slightly on the light side and it can really throw off your game. An overweight ball can feel slightly heavy and you may find yourself shooting short of the net whereas a ball that is underweight tends to be flighty. It may over bounce and under perform.
Some budget friendly knockoff balls out of China are often slightly heavy or light so again, buy name brand when possible for the best chance of getting the perfect ball.
Basketballs Should be Perfectly Balanced
My son got a new ball for Christmas and there was something off about it. It took me about 30 seconds to figure out that it was not properly balanced. Some gentle wobbling as I spun the ball on my finger confirmed my suspicions. There may have been too many interior windings on one side of the ball and not enough on the other causing a slightly off feel.
This isn’t too big a deal unless you do a lot of dribbling in which case you may find the ball moving in ways you can’t anticipate.
What is the Best Brand of Basketball?
Keep These Things in Mind When You Buy
There are few important takeaways to keep in mind when your ready to buy that shiny new ball. Stay away from rubber balls if your going to play or practicing in any serious and meaningful way at all. It’s just not a great feel and it can really throw your game off. I would almost consider it a novelty item rather than a serious basketball.
Leather is for serious, indoor play and really only if you can afford the extra cost. You do get a better quality ball and a slightly better feel over the synthetic ball once it’s broken in but is the price really worth the small increase in performance? Perhaps.
A high quality composite indoor outdoor ball is definitely going to give you your bang for your buck. Go brand name if you can and you won’t be disappointed. You are giving up a bit of quality compared to leather but your cutting your cost in half.
This is the Best Outdoor Basketball
The Spalding Zi/O Excel is a top of the line hybrid basketball meaning it plays flawlessly both indoors and out. A slightly pricier option than some other decent basketballs but in this case that is money well spent.
Immediately out of the box you can tell that there is some serious quality workmanship that went into creating this piece of art. Be mindful that it may feel a bit slippery at first and that’s ok because once on the court that slip turns to stick and allows for some amazing grip. The feel is better than anything else available in hybrid form in our opinion.
The balls synthetic cover provides a really good feel similar to that of leather right down to the pebbling. Release of the ball feels smooth and comfortable which can only help improve accuracy.
The channeling has good depth and seems durable. It gives you a solid feeling of quality and a knowledge that this ball is going to last a long, long time.
The Spalding Zi/O is standard NBA official size and weight with 29.5 inches in width and a proper 1.4 lbs (22 oz) weight. It sports the ever famous NBA logo wearing a standard of quality on it’s outer skin. The gold and black coloring accent each other nicely and give the ball a very professional look.
This ball comes perfectly inflated out of the box so there is no need to pump before you play.
It really is a really solid ball that will give anyone years of happy playing!
Other Great Outdoor Basketballs
SPALDING NBA REPLICA GAME BASKETBALL
The Spalding Replica Game Basketball would be my second choice of outdoor basketballs. Again, brand name and they are trying to mimic the official leather ball used in the NBA. Made of composite leather. Indoor outdoor basketball. Official size and weight.
SPALDING NBA STREET-PHANTOM
Another solid ball to play with, the Street Phantom mixes great looks with great performance. Made of composite leather. Indoor outdoor basketball. Official size and weight.
WILSON NCAA REPLICA
If you like a splash of color when you play basketball this may be the ball for you. The Wilson NCAA Replica basketball has a few other colors to choose from as well. Made of composite leather. Indoor outdoor basketball. Official size and weight.