July 8, 2023 

Will Han Xu be the answer to New York Liberty’s bench woes?

One of the Liberty's perceived strengths was their depth, but the bench has struggled lately

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Nyara Sabally, Jonquel Jones and Sabrina Ionescu were smiling wide and clapping on Wednesday before the New York Liberty played the Phoenix Mercury. “Go Hanny, Go Hanny,” the players chanted. They were egging on Han Xu to dance.

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Han had touched down in New York just days before, after winning the Asia Cup with China and being named the tournament’s MVP.

At first, the 6’11 Han wasn’t too happy that her teammates chose her to dance in the middle of their pregame circle. She rolled her head up to the ceiling, as if thinking, “Why me?”

But then she hopped into the center of the circle, waved her right arm and fist in the air, and bent her knees and shook her behind. “Yeah, Hanny,” Jones shouted before the whole team brought their hands into the circle and ran onto the floor. 

In five games at the Asia Cup, Han averaged 22.0 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. In the past 10 years, no player had recorded a double-double in each game of the Asia Cup — until Han. And she recorded the highest efficiency in tournament history (29.4) since FIBA began calculating the metric in 2015.

​​Prior to leaving for the Asia Cup, though, Han had struggled for the Liberty. She had dropped to the bottom of the rotation, only registering 3.7 minutes per game in five games played. Every time she took the floor in garbage time, the crowd roared. 

Her teammates immediately tried to set up plays for her, but she often rushed her shot and missed. It became increasingly difficult for Han to help the Liberty, especially with the veteran post depth on the roster. Han’s confidence dipped so much that head coach Sandy Brondello had Han get additional reps with the practice players during practice.

“We always said, ‘Just go to Asia Cup, find your confidence back and then we can try to find opportunities to continue to grow,’ because I think she can give us some good minutes here,” Brondello said on July 2. “But she has to believe in herself.”

While Han was across the world putting up double-doubles, the Liberty continued to gain chemistry but also lost reserve big Stefanie Dolson to an ankle injury. She’s been out since the Liberty’s June 25 home matchup against the Washington Mystics.

Since then, the Liberty’s bench has struggled significantly. In the games Dolson has missed, the Liberty bench’s plus-minus has been minus-0.9, which ranks seventh in the WNBA.

Heading into the 2023 season, one of the Liberty’s perceived strengths was their depth. If injury struck the Liberty, they were expected to have enough proven talent to step up and contribute to defeating the most challenging opponents, a group that includes the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces.

“You just have to look at what Las Vegas is doing [this season], and what they’re doing is not just best in the league, it’s historic,” The Next‘s Howard Megdal said on the Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast on July 5. “… [But] where the Liberty make up that gap … is in depth.”

However, that hasn’t been the case since Dolson went down. In a 98-81 loss to the Aces on June 29, New York struggled to find offense that Las Vegas couldn’t guard, and the Liberty struggled to stop the ball and make the Aces uncomfortable.

Things came to a head against the Mercury on Wednesday, when the entire Liberty bench had negative plus-minuses. Marine Johannès finished the game at minus-21 and Kayla Thornton, typically the queen of plus-minus, finished at minus-10.

“You can look at the lineups that’s all out there,” assistant coach Olaf Lange told The Next. “Then when we go to the bench, we aren’t doing so well.”

Now that Han has returned to the United States with more confidence, can this change? Can the Liberty become even scarier with the weapons they have waiting in the wings? 

The answer to that question will have to wait until Han can get healthy. She returned from the Asia Cup with a flare-up of a foot injury she first dealt with a year ago.

“She played through pain in the Asia Cup with medication, and usually that [pain] has a tendency to come back harder,” Lange said. “So we are facing that, and with the [upcoming] All-Star break, obviously we have an opportunity to rest a little bit more. But I do think that the opportunity will still be there whenever the foot is better.”

But why was Han struggling to get that opportunity in the first place, and what led to her drop in confidence?

New York Liberty center Han Xu is shown in her black uniform, alone on the court.
New York Liberty center Han Xu (21) steps on the floor in a game against the Washington Mystics at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 19, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Early-season struggles for Han

The Liberty’s 2023 roster consists of two MVP post players in Jones and Breanna Stewart in addition to veteran point guard and floor general Courtney Vandersloot. With their arrival, Brondello and her coaching staff made significant changes to how the Liberty play from 2022. Second-side actions would happen quicker. The Liberty are meant to down screen, go into pick and roll, rescreen, and respace, all in one potential offensive possession.

Han struggled to keep up with those expectations. Dolson, who has played in more complex systems beginning at UConn and then with the 2021 WNBA champion Chicago Sky, played better in training camp. Sabally, who also got minutes over Han, has been praised for having above-average instincts.

“Han is a really young player in China,” Lange said. “They always play one way, so for her, it’s probably because she’s not used to constantly adapting.”

What also helped Han in 2022 was that her role was very much about shot-making. She earned her spot in the rotation last season when the Liberty had injuries. When New York’s top scorers last season, Ionescu and Natasha Howard, were struggling offensively, Brondello inserted Han into the lineup for easy and quick offense that would get the Liberty back into a game and give them confidence to play hard.

“It was about shot-making for her,” Lange said, “coming in and making shots, because that was the team we had. Now this year with Stewie and Sloot and Sabrina, it’s not all about shot-making. It’s functioning in the system.”

Brondello still wants Han to be herself. Functioning in the Liberty’s highly instinctual system for Han means shooting when she’s open, but not too quickly, and initiating pick and roll. Brondello is hopeful that Han’s dominant run at the Asia Cup not only gives her confidence back in the WNBA, but also helps her develop into one of the league’s preeminent posts.

“That’s what she’s gotta come and continue to build on,” Brondello said.

However, Brondello can’t make any determinations until Han is healthy.

“I don’t know what [her return] looks like,” Brondello said. “I’m not going to determine it. I’m not going to promise minutes. I don’t promise anyone minutes. She’s gotta come in and work and stay focused and locked in and take the moments that she does get.”

What’s behind the bench’s struggles

While Han gets ready to return and prove that she can contribute to this 2023 New York team, what else has been behind the bench’s struggles?

After the Liberty’s 99-95 win over the Mercury on Wednesday, Brondello couldn’t immediately diagnose it. She said she wished she knew, but the first thing she could think of was that some of the players were overthinking.

Two days later, Brondello explained why she thought Johannès had struggled against the Mercury. Johannès had looked stagnant and lacked the typical spring in her step that makes her look like a gazelle on the court. Johannès is an over-thinker, but Brondello also had a better sense of what was going on in the guard’s head.

Johannès was anxious and concerned that she would upset the star players around her with even one mistake. “I’m like, ‘No, no, they’re your teammates and they believe in you,'” Brondello said. “… She’s so important. We’re going to keep harping on it to her. And then she’s just gotta get a little bit more comfortable. She’s trying to play with how to fit in with Stewie, I think, and with how to roll.”

Jones agreed that Johannès and the rest of the bench’s struggles are a lot about how they respond to even the slightest mistake. She told The Next that the key for players like Johannès and Han is playing freely and going hard even when mistakes are made.

“We all mess up,” she said. “But if you’re gonna do it hard, then it just looks better. You may be in the wrong place, but just do it hard.”

In addition to the issues of confidence and anxiety for Han and Johannès, Sabally has had some rookie moments, and Thornton has had to adjust defensively. She has switched between guarding not only threes and fours but also twos, which she hasn’t done often. Without Dolson, Thornton shifted to the four, but against the Mercury, she was assigned to defend guard Diana Taurasi, who was on a tear. Thornton was ejected following two flagrant fouls while trying to contest Taurasi’s shots.

New York Liberty forward Kayla Thornton (5) defends Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi (3) in a game at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Photo credit: Brandon Todd/New York Liberty)

“I think it’s hard with KT. She’s a three, she’s a four,” Brondello said on Wednesday. “We haven’t had much time playing with Stef out. She’s very smart. You lose that kind of thing. Nyara’s still learning; she’s a rookie. So she’s going to be up and down. That’s normal.”

Especially following the blowout loss in Las Vegas, the Liberty’s front office has considered creative ways to address the team’s issues guarding the perimeter. An opportunity could open up for big guard Jocelyn Willoughby, who is athletic and quick enough to stop the bigger and shiftier guards while Thornton is better suited to guarding and stopping the more versatile forwards and wings.

“Joce, she hasn’t had many moments, to be quite honest,” Brondello said. “But we’re going to need them all, and we just have to stay focused on how they can help us because everyone is very important.

“And that’s my goal, to make sure that they’re prepared to come in. We don’t have much practice time, so it’s a lot of video and mental work, but just how we can get a little bit more of a cohesive group when we make rotations?”

What can we expect from the bench moving forward?

While Dolson’s ankle continues to heal and when Han is healthy and ready to suit up, there will be a major opportunity for Han to protect the paint, especially when Jones subs out. Brondello doesn’t envision Han playing alongside Jones but rather next to Stewart. And while Han’s ability to rotate defensively continues to be a point of growth, she is the tallest player in the league and has long arms to protect the rim.

“She gives us a different look just from her size, her ability … to have a versatile game, [to] be inside, outside and do multiple things,” Stewart said of Han. “You know she can shoot it, she can read, she can pass. It helps with our bench especially. Knowing that right now if JJ comes out, we obviously drop off in size and hopefully when Han’s back, we’ll still continue to kind of have a force in the paint.”

But for Han to get comfortable and be that force in the paint, she’ll need reps. Now that she knows New York’s complex style of play, she’ll need opportunities to improve at it. That only comes in live, five-on-five action.

“It’s just, you have to figure it out,” Lange said. “It’s that simple because everything happens so fast that you just have to learn by doing, so to speak, and it’s not always a conscious process because, by the time you think about it, it’s done. It’s all subconscious; it’s reacting.”

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With over 20 games left, the Liberty have time to figure out what Lange calls “a fine line to find the right depth.”

“If you look at Vegas, they played last season [with] six and a half people [in their rotation] all year and their chemistry now is off the charts. This is what fans don’t understand. You can’t play eight or nine people and develop very good chemistry.”

Moving forward, the Liberty have to work on developing chemistry within their second unit.

“The bench knows how important they are to this,” Vandersloot said prior to Saturday’s game against the Seattle Storm. “Depth is something you talk about to make a long, successful [playoff] run. You need depth; you need a bench that can give you good minutes. We’ve been harping all season [that] we have a strong bench … We just have to make sure they know how important they are for this to all work.”

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.


  1. Mike Calla on July 12, 2023 at 1:10 pm

    Marine’s confidence must be shot even if she doesn’t show it. Looks like another 0 or low point game. I’ll say it again she does not fit on this team. She needs to be on a team where she can be Marine.

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