February 19, 2023 

What Han Xu re-signing with the Liberty means for 2023

New York's bench conundrum gets some more intrigue

On Friday, the New York Liberty announced that the team had re-signed Han Xu, the 6 ’10  center from China, who the team drafted 14th overall in the 2019 draft. Han signed her qualifying offer as a reserved free agent, which is a one year deal at the minimum ($62,285) for a player with two years of WNBA service. Her contract is what the league’s transaction page has identified as a training camp contract, one that won’t hit the salary cap until the season begins.

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Han took a massive leap from the tentative 19-year-old who was adjusting to American life during her rookie season in 2019 to a more confident 22-year-old who was more comfortable in her own skin and in her own game in 2022.

She transformed from a player who once wasn’t given a chance to play and was viewed as a liability defensively into a player who the Liberty could turn to when shots weren’t falling and offense turned cold. Per Synergy Sports, Han registered 0.934 points per possession on 274 total possessions. That’s within the 71 percentile and has Han tied with 2022 All-WNBA First Team member Skylar Diggins-Smith. While Diggins-Smith amassed more than twice as many total possessions than Han with 625, when Han was on the floor, she scored and scored efficiently.

The defending champions Las Vegas Aces ought not forget when Han dropped 24 points on 11-12 shooting in less than 20 minutes of action on the floor on July 6. The LA Sparks probably won’t forget when Han was on triple-double watch on August 2, putting up 13 points, 7 rebounds and 8 assists in 27 minutes.

Her defense was the area of growth and progression that head coach Sandy Brondello believed was most noticeable from training camp in April to the middle of the season in July. “Defensively in the beginning, I kept her in one scheme if you realize that, but now we’re making her do more because we feel more comfortable with her doing it,” she said on July 12.

Han explained following the Liberty’s exit from the playoffs in late August that Brondello and her staff — and specifically Olaf Lange — made learning and aspects of her player development on both sides of the ball fun, something that she wasn’t used to previously. That attention to detail and care for Han and her game’s growth was something that stood out to the now 23-year-old. Han has a desire to continue improving and believes that New York’s staff and amenities will allow her to do so.

While there was some initial concern about Han’s availability during the 2023 regular season due to the Asia Cup that runs from June 26 through July 2 in Australia, a source familiar with Han’s thinking told The Next that there won’t be conflicts with the schedule of the Chinese National Team. Han is committed to the Liberty and the WNBA, and that is apparent in her plans following the WCBA regular season and the playoffs, which conclude in early March. The plan for Han is to fly over to Los Angeles later in March and train for around a month before reporting to training camp in Brooklyn.

Han will arrive at training camp to play with players she’s never played with but has certainly admired from afar. Liberty newcomers Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot haven’t yet been on the same side as the 6’10 Han.

“This roster is special,” Vandersloot said when she was officially introduced as a member of the Liberty. “Like we kind of talked about, it’s not just the power that [she, Stewart and Jones] brought in, they have and I mean crazy, an incredible amount of young talent.” And that includes the 23-year-old Han Xu.

How does Han’s return impact the Liberty’s bench?

While Han’s signing doesn’t immediately impact New York’s salary cap, the conversation does shift to who makes this roster and who doesn’t come May 18, the final roster cutdown date.

As it stands, since the Liberty cleared $75,407 of their salary cap off the books in trading Michaela Oneynwere, New York can only begin the season with three out of five of the following: Han, Epiphanny Prince, Sika Koné, DiDi Richards and Marine Johannés. The WNBA’s hard salary cap won’t allow for that entire group to be on roster all at the same time.

But speaking of Johannés, she is the only player in that group to not officially have signed a contract. While Johannés communicated as recently as last week her desire to return to New York, she did indicate that something she needs to work out is what exactly her French national team commitments look like.

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It is clear that she will miss at least seven games due to not only the end of her French League season but because of the EuroBasket Championships, which runs from June 15 through June 25. This assumes that Johannés departs to EuroBasket on June 12 and returns for the Liberty’s June 29th game in Las Vegas.

What isn’t clear is will Johannés have to stay in France for the National team’s pre-EuroBasket training schedule? Would she be able to play some of the season in New York before leaving for EuroBasket? If that isn’t the case, and she has to stay in France, Johannés could potentially miss 14 total games rather than 7. She’ll still be available for more than half of the 2023 WNBA season, but this will be her final year before prioritization kicks in for the 28-year-old.

Would she rather spend that final year next year in 2024, or is Johannés hell bent on winning and playing with the Liberty’s roster as it stands, which could be hard to run back completely as it stands next season. This is what isn’t known yet.

Back to the roster spot situation, there is a universe where Johannés doesn’t begin the season on the Liberty’s roster but finishes it on the roster. How is this possible? Look no further than last year when the Liberty traded AD Durr to make space for Johannés prior to the mid-season cutdown date of the 2022 season. (The mid-season cutdown date is the point of the season when all contracts that aren’t protected and guaranteed become guaranteed. Waiving a player will cost a team more money following the mid-season cutdown date.) This season’s mid-season cutdown date is July 14, a day before WNBA-All Star and weeks following the conclusion of EuroBasket.

Come April 30, expect the Liberty to have a smaller but extremely competitive training camp. While Koné is someone who the Liberty believe has loads of potential as a forward in the WNBA, does she stay on the roster over Han, someone who showed flashes of becoming an All-Star in 2022? Or does New York waive goodbye to DiDi Richards, a young wing and a fan favorite who inspired Liberty fans from the first day she stepped onto the court at Barclays Center? It will be fascinating to see who the Liberty believe gives them the best chance at competing for a championship in 2023.

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.

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