June 24, 2022
Age is no longer a limit for Han Xu
How did the 6’10 center transform from last player off the bench to first?
BROOKLYN — Two years and 10 months ago, the Liberty had just lost 95-82 to the Phoenix Mercury. Their record was now 9-21 and they were officially knocked out of the 2019 playoff race by a Sandy Brondello-led Phoenix squad who would end up grabbing that final postseason spot.
Only three current Liberty players were on the roster for that game: Rebecca Allen, Marine Johannès and Han Xu. Only two of the three actually played. By today’s standards, it’s hard to believe that Allen played only 10 minutes and Johannès played less than five in a game that sealed the team’s playoff fate. And Han Xu? She didn’t play at all.
When I approached a frustrated, crammed and wooden Westchester County Center locker room almost three years ago, I asked combo-guard Bria Hartley a question about what Han could provide this team if she had gotten the chance. Before Hartley could answer, a teammate interjected and blurted out the word “WHAT,” ignoring the seriousness and genuine curiosity of my question.
It was a response that created a narrative that the 2019 14th overall draft pick couldn’t play at this level. And while it would be a tall task to put her in against Brittney Griner, what about the Mercury’s second unit that included a 6’5 Sancho Lyttle in her final WNBA season? At the time Han was only 6’9.
The Next, a 24/7/365 women’s basketball newsroom
The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited and photographed by our young, diverse staff and dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives and projections about the game we love.
Flash forward to 2022, and I was back in a very different Liberty locker room. One that now only contains Allen, Johannès and Han from that 2019 team. The question I asked this time would have been inconceivable three years ago, and it might have gotten that same mockery. This time, rather than frustration and cruel sarcasm, there was a sense of joy and pride in the spacious, black and seafoam finished state-of-the-art locker room in Barclays Center.
I surveyed the room and asked a few players including Allen the question: should Han be included in the discussion for sixth player of the year? “Of course, maybe put her in the five mate,” Allen told The Next jovially.
I laughed nervously at first but then followed up and asked for a more serious response. Han had just recorded a stunning 15-point (6-12 shooting) and five-rebound performance in 25 minutes in the Liberty’s June 7 home win against the Lynx, 88-69. She just reached her career high in scoring, before topping that a game later with 16 points on only eight shots, (eight shots !) to go along with five boards and two blocks against the Fever.
“I mean for that but even just for her game every single time I feel like she’s improving every single game and then she’s showing more confidence and playing with this huge presence inside the key as well and outside really,” Allen said. “So I mean, whether it’s sixth man, whether she’s an all-star, I’m just ultimately happy for her game in general.”
It’s been a long three-year journey for both the Liberty and their 2019 second-round pick Han. How, in the span of 33 months, did she go from not being taken seriously to being one of the first players to come off of New York’s bench?
How history didn’t repeat itself
When Brondello was announced as the head coach of the Liberty this past January after eight years in Phoenix with the Mercury, she was asked about the roster she was given. While she expressed how much depth she thought the current roster had, she remarked that there was one thing that New York didn’t have that the job she was leaving did.
“I mean there’s no Brittney Griner here, that dominant big post player,” she said.
It’s worth remembering that this press conference took place before it was even certain that someone taller than Griner would be returning to this roster. Han had one year left on her rookie scale contract and sat out the last two seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to having too many international conflicts last season. Initially, there were questions about if this season was going to work for the now 22-year-old Han. Would she get her visa approved in time? Would more Chinese national team commitments prevent her from coming over?
Brondello knew about Han. She had seen her in many international competitions and coached against her as the head coach of the Australian Opals. While she had an idea of the type of player she had become, she was hesitant to just throw her into the fire. It had been around three years since she was in the United States. It had been just as long since she had participated in WNBA-level competition, which has a much more physical flavor than the FIBA-run competitions she’s been used to.
Initially, it appeared like Brondello was going to make similar decisions that were made back at the Westchester County Center. Brondello was impressed with the progress Han made in training camp, but it didn’t sound like she was sold on her having a major role on this team. At least not yet.
“I’ve been really impressed with how she’s going and she’s gonna have some learning, learning pains but we’re gonna get there,” Brondello told The Next a day before the Liberty’s season opener. “She’s got to stay patient and then you know it’ll be about matchups to be quite honest.”
Matchups? What did she mean by that? Han needed to get reps and not get trapped in the same cycle she found herself in three years ago. A cycle that is omnipresent right now on the Dallas Wings, a team with so many young post players and not enough minutes for them to grow.
I challenged Brondello. I asked her point blank: How are you going to make sure that she gets those reps? Her response was honest and clearly communicated.
“You know obviously in the game we want to win,” she said. “So we’re going to play who we think can win. And that’s why I talked about patience and it’s about…she’s not going to guard a J[onquel] J[ones]. Making sure she’s on the court guarding the right people so she can have that success and doesn’t get too high or too low. And she can build on it, so we have to read the game, how it’s going, and she’s just gotta stay ready.”
Assistant coach Olaf Lange’s approach to Han might be one of the main differences between 2019 and 2022. He’s made a concerted effort to teach Han all that he can. During training camp, he was seen using his teenage son Brody to help show the 22-year-old how to properly screen.
While he agreed with his wife Brondello about how Han might struggle with some of the more physical posts, and that the key was placing her in mismatches on the block and off, he also explained that she had to play. According to Lange, Han had to put her hand on a metaphorical “hot stove” in order to really be able to learn and grow in this league. Getting from point A to point B in the WNBA is all about the combination of film work and diligence in practice in conjunction with in-game reps. “Some things have to be experienced before they can be retained,” he said.
The poor and unfortunate month of May ended up serving so many benefits to New York. Han got an opportunity, one that initially Brondello didn’t plan for, due to the laundry list of injuries the team endured. Every time Han stepped on the floor in May, after her couple of early DNPs against Jonquel Jones and the Sun and the quick and athletic posts in Indiana, she posted double figures in scoring. In five games in May, she never scored less than ten points.
Han had proven to not only the Liberty and the coaching staff, but to herself that she is a very capable and skilled professional player. Brondello addressed her initial strategy with Han after the Liberty beat the Lynx at home on June 7. She acknowledged that there was some apprehension early about her adjustment period. She couldn’t say she was surprised by Han’s off-the-bench dominance.
“It’s more like ‘okay, she’s actually pretty skilled’,” Brondello said. “And she’s got a soft touch and she’s building up her strength and understanding our system as well too. She’s a great addition to our team and complements Stef[anie Dolson] well.”
Confidence, intelligence and work ethic
When asked about what’s changed for Han in the years since 2019, coaches around the league all agreed that her confidence on the offensive end is night and day. It became quite clear to Cheryl Reeve— whose associate head coach Katie Smith was Han’s coach in 2019— that the 22-year-old is no longer afraid and is confident in how she uses her body.
Mike Thibault has noticed that there’s much more muscle on Han than when he began scouting her years ago. And Curt Miller believes her improved confidence comes from getting the reps not in the WNBA, but rather with the Chinese national team. The international stage remains a place where young players can develop and compete against the caliber of talent that populates the W. But Thibault understood why Han had the season she did in 2019. A common thought that runs through young international players when they come into the league is: Do I belong or not?
“As you see yourself have some success and make some shots or block a shot or whatever it is, you say: ‘Oh, yeah, I’m good, I can do this,’” he said. “And that’s I think been impressive about her, there’s a demeanor about her that’s way more confident.”
Lange has been impressed with how Han has handled that physicality, something that initially might have held back her confidence. What has also helped Han has been the fact that she often faces some of the second-string post players when she first enters the game. However, she has had success against some superstars as well. When the Storm came to Barclays on Sunday, June 19, Han had key minutes guarding Breanna Stewart, a player she has idolized for a while.
After getting a pass from Sue Bird on the block, Stewart floated outside of the paint for the turnaround jumper. She spun around and there was Han, right in her face with her long 6’10 wingspan, disrupting Stewart’s shot and forcing a miss.
“I think she handled physicality very well,” Lange said. “She’s found ways to score and she made a couple outside shots. I think we made other teams be surprised, but we were not. It balances her game very well so they can just put post players on her because she can pick and pop, shoot the outside shots. I think that helped. But overall she’s been very efficient overall.”
Let’s talk about Han’s offensive efficiency, shall we? According to Synergy Sports, Han scores 1.125 points per possession, a number that puts her in the 92nd percentile. A number that’s more efficient than the production coming out of A’ja Wilson and Stewart. Her Hoops Stats has Han also in the 92nd percentile for total field goal percentage (54.5). She registers just one foul per game (96th percentile) and 0.8 turnovers per game (87th percentile). Through June 23, she has played 18.8 minutes per contest and has scored 10.4 points per game in those minutes in 2022.
Also, her three-point percentage is maddening. While she’s only made six threes on 13 attempts (46.2 percent), the Liberty have had post players before who have taken a lower volume of shots but have shot the ball much worse. That is not Han.
Where does this efficiency come from? It’s not just about her growing confidence, but rather Han’s intelligence as a basketball player, a quality that has always been there amid a language barrier. While the 2019 Liberty tried their best to address the language barrier, a lot has changed since then. First, Han’s English has improved. Second, the Liberty employ two rotating translators, Cindy Chen and Kevin Zhang, who both have basketball backgrounds and can easily communicate with Han using more complex terminology. That wasn’t the case three years ago.
Anyway, in 2022 Han knows where she wants the ball and knows how she can be successful with it. Case in point: with 8:05 left in the fourth quarter against the Fever on June 10, Johannès drove the ball across the court while Han rolled. Johannès’ pass was a bit lower than Han usually likes and the Fever defense was able to collapse on her in time to prevent the score. Once the ball went out of bounds, Han communicated that she wanted to receive the ball a bit higher by putting her hand up.
Around a minute later, Johannès tried again, and this time she got the ball up higher. Han grabbed it in the place where she wanted it and the collapsed Fever defense fell over like a couple of bowling pins while Han turned around and put the ball in the basket.
Han doesn’t only communicate well with her teammates amid a language barrier. She also has a strong feel for her teammates on the court. Natasha Howard is a prime example of this. The two played together overseas in China on the Zhejiang Magic Deer and it surprised Howard how quickly their chemistry has returned after years had passed.
“She’s smart, she’s a really smart player and she reads off me really well and that’s what I love about Han,” Howard told The Next. “Even though we haven’t played with each other in like a few years, we still have that. It can pick up. I don’t know how. It’s like instinct.”
It’s all been about confidence and the realization of her natural instincts for the game for Han. But what’s the secret ingredient that usually unlocks both? Han has worked very hard since arriving in New York in April and she’s garnered respect from Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty’s newer franchise player. Ionescu can trust Han because she’s aware of her willingness to work hard.
“She’s really eager to listen,” Ionescu told The Next on June 16 following New York’s 77-65 win over the Mystics. “However she can help. She’s wanting to learn and listen to the coaching staff, listens to us. And so that’s something that’s really helped her and she’s humble. She really wants it. She wants to be great. She wants to be the best that she can be for this team and she puts the work in.”
Brondello also commented on this work that Han has put in since she touched down almost two months ago. She revealed that Lange didn’t just work with her on her screen setting, which according to Stefanie Dolson is still something they work on. Apparently, Han is hesitant that she’ll be called for a moving screen, which, per Dolson, is to be expected. Regardless, Brondello revealed that Lange and Han worked extensively on her post footwork.
“[Lange] worked a lot with BG in her early years in Phoenix too and Hanny’s way ahead of BG,” Brondello said. “So you kind of compare them in that and that’s pretty good. And BG’s one of the best post players now with her back to the basket and her footwork and finishing ability.”
For Brondello, Han’s next stage of growth is to continue developing that physical strength. The goal is so that Han isn’t pushed off the block and can finish even stronger while keeping her soft touch. Sure there isn’t a BG in New York, but there is a Han, a 6’10 agile post player who can shoot from anywhere. A player whose skill set has no comparison in the WNBA. A player who has some qualities that she shares with Griner and maybe Emma Meesseman when it comes to efficiency at age 22. She’s been compared to NBA great Yao Ming because they are both extremely gifted vertically but also because they are both Chinese, but Yao and Han’s styles of play couldn’t be more different.
Han stands tall in her own lane both on the court and off.
“I enjoy you“
Three years later after dealing with a new country, a new language and a new team that wasn’t necessarily ready to nurture the young talent that is Han, the 22-year-old has blossomed into someone who has confidence off the court too. 2019 teammate and current Storm forward Reshanda Gray called 2022’s Han “fly.” She’s got a defined sense of style now which included her decision to dye part of her hair blue or as close to seafoam green as Han could find.
And while Han is still continuing to learn English, Dolson finds her learning process endearing rather than bothersome or a hindrance. “[She’s] funny like in the way that she’s trying to learn certain words and the way she says certain things just like it doesn’t have to be funny,” Dolson said. “She says something and you’re like ‘ahhh Han you are hilarious’. And yes, she’s just a great kid.”
And besides that connection on the court, Han has formed a real bond with Howard. Not only are their lockers next to each other in the locker room, but Han likes to tease Howard. The 22-year-old can be quite a goofball and Howard is amused by the teasing and light mocking. “I’m like ‘really Han’ and she’s like ‘really’?” Howard said about how Han imitates Howard’s American accent and way of being. Howard also decided to try the Chinese delicacy chicken feet. Han brought it over straight from China and while Howard didn’t think it was terrible, she noted it was a tad bit rubbery.
The 2022 Liberty have nurtured their young talent. No longer is Han’s age and inexperience a cause for concern but rather it’s now accepted and the status quo. It’s a sign of promise and should cause excitement for a prosperous future. “For a 22-year-old to be where she’s at, you know the sky’s the limit really,” Brondello said. “How good can she be? I don’t know.”
When Han was asked on June 16 about what allows her to play with so much comfort. Her translator Kevin Zhang began to relay her answer.
“I really enjoy this team,” she said via Zhang. “I like my teammates.”
At that exact moment, Howard tapped her with a smile to get her attention. Han turned her head and looked at Howard who then whispered “I enjoy you.” What followed was a handshake underneath the table. Both smiled while Zhang continued speaking.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.