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How Gen Z Is Taking Over the Signature Basketball Sneaker Category

At the beginning of December, a social media feud ignited between Nike athlete Kevin Durant and Adidas on behalf of its 22-year-old budding superstar Anthony Edwards, who was promoting his first signature sneaker.

As harmless as the trash talk was, especially compared to what’s said on-court, it signaled that a new generation is taking over the NBA — and with it, the signature shoe market. Of the 18 NBA players with signature sneakers on the market from one of the big five brands (Nike/Jordan Brand, Adidas, New Balance, Puma and Under Armour) eight of them are 26 years old or younger, putting them firmly in Generation Z. Two are on the cusp, at 27, while four are 35 or older, suggesting the end of their respective on-court careers isn’t far off.

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Edwards’ Adidas AE 1 sneaker, which launched in December, is the buzziest basketball model in recent memory (debut or otherwise). Although it’s still too new to compare the total number of units sold, StockX told FN the sneaker is commanding a 15 percent price premium on average for transactions on the resale platform.

Nike Ja 1
Ja Morant’s Nike Ja 1 Courtesy of Nike

The three top sellers on the site (in order) are the Nike Ja 1, the debut model for 24-year-old Ja Morant; the Nike LeBron 20 from 39-year-old LeBron James; and the Puma MB.02, the second sneaker made for 22-year-old LaMelo Ball.

However, StockX noted, total trades for LeBron sneakers over the past 12 months have decreased by 28 percent compared with the same period two years prior, when they commanded an average premium of 9 percent. (His shoes now sell for 22 percent less than retail.)

“In the past, performance basketball was driven by the superstars who had a proven career,” said Drew Haines, merchandising director for sneakers at StockX. “Now you have these young players who are certainly superstars but still very early in their careers and not champions yet. They’re the next generation of athletes, and consumers are trending toward these products just as much, if not more, than those legacy superstars.”

Coming off a series of activations at the NBA All-Star Game that featured 21-year-old Paolo Banchero and 20-year-old Victor Wembanyama (the latter of whom will likely get his own shoe soon), Foot Locker senior vice president and chief merchandising officer Bryon Milburn said the company is experiencing growth across its basketball business, including retro and performance models. Two of the biggest sneakers from Gen Z players — the Adidas AE 1 and Puma MB.03 — are also Foot Locker exclusives.

“Our stable of young athletes and established athletes is as good or better than it has been in the past, even since 2013 through 2017, which was the heyday of signature basketball,” Milburn said. He also pointed to the greater number of brands with signature athletes in the sport, as well as the importance that Gen Z places on choice.

Puma MB.03
LaMelo Ball’s Puma MB.03 Courtesy of Puma

Puma is one of the newer players, having only returned to basketball in 2018. Three years later, Ball became its first signature athlete since Vince Carter terminated his contract in 1999. Puma has since added Breanna Stewart, whose 2022 sneaker debut ended an 11-year drought for the WNBA, and Scoot Henderson, who last year became the first NBA player to get a sneaker during his rookie year since LeBron James.

Ball is a valuable partner for the brand. By the time he was drafted into the league in 2020, he already had 5.7 million Instagram followers — a figure that’s more than doubled that of Zion Williamson when he entered the league, despite Williamson being a higher-rated prospect and having gone viral himself when he was just 16.

“We’re very lucky to work with [Ball]. He’s an incredibly powerful player for Gen Z, mostly because he’s got this dynamic play on-court and a unique sense of personal style and leverage of fashion off-court,” said Allison Giorgio, Puma vice president of marketing for North America.

She confirmed the three shoes from Ball’s line have been among the best-selling across the entire brand and have generated a significant halo effect by leading consumers to other Puma products.

Another brand with visible momentum is Adidas, thanks to its AE 1 and Harden Vol. 8, the latter of which, belonging to 34-year-old James Harden, is one of the only shoes from a veteran generating excitement. Both sneakers represent a dramatic, future-looking design shift from Adidas and sold out their first several releases, respectively.

“We felt the consumer today is much less brand loyal and looking for newness,” Eric Wise, global general manager for Adidas Basketball, told FN in December about the AE 1. “So we saw an opportunity there, and we took a look at ourselves and said, ‘Over the last decade, if we’re honest, we’ve been inconsistent at best.’ We wanted to get back to being the best version of Adidas.”

Nike’s biggest Gen Z hit, the Ja 1, comes despite the sneaker launching in between a pair of two gun-related controversies involving Morant. He was suspended twice in 2023 for a total of 33 games for incidents in which he was seen holding a handgun. ESPN’s Michael Wilbon, one of the most prominent sports commentators in America for more than 20 years, even said on-air that he wouldn’t buy Morant’s sneakers for his teenage son. Still, the Ja 1 managed to sell out several different colorways.

The sneakers from Morant, Edwards and Ball all follow a long-established pattern by having a cheaper price tag than those of more-established stars. Nike asks $200 for the LeBron 21, while the Nike Ja 1 is just $120 to $140. Over at Puma, its MB.03 is $125 to $135 and the Adidas AE 1 retails for only $120.

About the Author:

Ian Servantes is a Senior Trending News Editor for Footwear News specializing in sneaker coverage. He’s previously reported on streetwear and sneakers at Input and Highsnobiety after beginning his career on the pop culture beat. He subscribes to the idea that “ball is life” and doesn’t fuss over his kicks getting dirty.

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