In the midst of an unexpected playoff hunt, there’s no better time for the New York Liberty to unleash their confident, comfortable second-round pick.
New York Liberty rookie Han Xu has dealt with a lot. The 19-year-old has broken a longstanding drought, has been followed by microphones and recorders from different countries, squared off against her former squad, and led her team to a victory on one of New York City’s grandest stages.
That was just her first month as a WNBA player.
Han’s professional lifespan has perhaps outlasted that of many other second-round draft picks. April’s unique draft featured second-rounders capable of making a difference. Unlike, say, Sophie Cunningham and Megan Gustafson, Han’s immediate burdens are not only on the domestic level. Her entry had potential to open professional basketball to a brand new continent entirely. The Shijiazhuang-born Han was chosen at 14th overall and thus became the first Chinese-born player to hear her name called at a WNBA draft since Zheng Haixia went to Los Angeles in the original edition’s second round in 1997.
Her arrival coincided with the Liberty’s slow but steady Brooklyn assimilation. The first step in that process came in May, when the Chinese national team visited Barclays Center for an exhibition. Included in the starting lineup, she scored the first unofficial points in the Liberty’s Brooklyn era. The earned pair was the first of a team-best 19 points in what became an 89-71 Liberty win.
It served as a perfect end to a perfect day for women’s sports in New York City. The local future of the Liberty, coming off a franchise-worst 7-27 record in 2018, was in doubt, but Brooklyn Nets minority owner Joseph Tsai came through with a purchase in which he assured they weren’t going anywhere. A vocal crowd showcased their appreciation, quickly endearing themselves to Han.
The ensuing WNBA journey has not been as smooth. She has struggled to gain traction in the New York lineup. Signs of trouble came in her regular season debut. Han entered the game in the second half and was put up against fellow rookie Teaira McCowan of the Indiana Fever. It was clear the matchup wasn’t going to work, as Han fouled McCowan on her way to two points in the paint. Han was immediately removed and didn’t take the court for the rest of the game.
“It’s still a learning process for her,” Liberty head coach Katie Smith after the opening game. “When I threw her in the game, it was against McCowan, which I don’t think was a great matchup. But every day Han gets better and she just continues to grow.”
Early matchups against similarly built interior women like Kalani Brown, Nneka Ogwumike, and Elena Delle Donne, it was hard for Han to find true traction in the lineup. Two lopsided Liberty losses allowed dark silver linings in the form of extended time for her. In a rematch with Indiana a week later, Han hit each of her first three WNBA attempts, including her first career three-pointer. She would then earn six points and three rebounds against Las Vegas.
“She’s great. She played really well at Indiana. Sometimes the matchups are a little tricky,” Smith remarked at the time. “Matchup-wise, me and the coaching staff decided maybe it wasn’t the best (to put her in). But Han, she’s always locked in. That’s who she is. She’s ready to go. Han understands, she’s going to stay ready.”
Smith also remarked that strong play from interior regulars Tina Charles, Reshanda Gray, and Amanda Zahui B haven’t helped Han’s personal case. That hasn’t stopped Han from being one of the most enthusiastic members of the Liberty bench mob. If any of her fellow Liberty paint prowlers succeed, she’s usually one of the first off the bench to express her approval.
No matter her minutes, Han has remained positive. The Liberty’s Instagram stories have constantly been filled with her infectious smile. She’s most often seen collaborating with Zahui B or fellow rookie Asia Durr. During Zahui B’s European trip, Han’s relationship with Durr blossomed. When a translator isn’t readily available, Durr will take matters into her own hands and do it herself. Han describes them as “really good friends”.
“I definitely have a lot of fun playing basketball with them,” Han said of her new teammates through translator Hannah Rothkuo after the Brooklyn win. “It’s been such a cool experience and they’ve all been so supportive and so helpful to any of the questions that I have.”
With Zahui B and three others absconding overseas to partake in the FIBA EuroBasket Women’s competition, several Liberty players earned chances to showcase their value and what they could bring to the team. While the Liberty enjoyed a surprising 4-2 mark that reinserted them in the WNBA playoff picture, Han’s own opportunity didn’t kick in until the final leg of that stretch on Sunday afternoon. Trapped in another wrong end of the scoreboard against the Aces (one undoubtedly furious after having 20 minutes taken away from by Mother Nature on Friday), Smith gave a forlorn Westchester County Center a gift by sending Han to the scorer’s table midway through the third quarter.
White Plains gave its loudest cheer of the afternoon. Demands for Han routinely emanate from the cozy confines of WCC. Even Maddie, the Liberty’s canine mascot, was clad in a “shirsey” bearing Han’s name and number on Sunday.
She became the silver lining of the Liberty’s 90-58 defeat at the hands of the Aces. She tied her career-best with seven points and set another personal best with three rebounds. The most impressive stat, perhaps, didn’t appear in Han’s box score…and it was also strategically kept out of Liz Cambage’s. Vegas’ All-Star acquisition torched the Liberty for 21 points on Sunday afternoon, but none came during the five minutes she squared off against Han. The chants for her only grew louder. One section even declared “M-V-P!”
A similar situation played out in the Liberty’s June 28 win over Dallas. A free throw late in the third quarter marked the first point Han had scored in front of a regular season home crowd, drawing joyful noise from the seats. The Liberty would go on to earn a 69-68 win to commence a four-game winning streak.
At that time, Han was genuinely shocked by the raucous reaction. Her gratitude was on full display during her postgame statements.
“I wasn’t expecting that at all because I’m just a rookie,” she told W-Insidr through Chang. “But I was really happy and want to thank all the people for supporting me.”
Han’s surprise at the fans’ fascination still hasn’t dissipated. But as she sat in the check-in area waiting for a stoppage in play to enter, Han couldn’t help but smile as her movement signaled a mood swing from the spectators. She made a solemn vow to her supporters after the game.
“I was shocked so many people cheered for me. I didn’t know why that happened. But I was happy,” she said. “So when I’m on the court, I will play for everyone, myself, for the team.”
Han was addressed with questions that would make other rookies cringe, pressed about guarding Cambage and entering the game when all was lost. She quickly dispelled any notions that she was letting up simply because of numbers or a defensive assignment.
“I didn’t think that much (of the score) at all. If I’m on the court, I’ll play hard. That’s it,” she said through Chang. “As a rookie, I’m not afraid of anything. Doesn’t matter how big Cambage is. I’m tall too. I have the confidence to defender her.”
The Liberty play again on Friday night in Chicago (8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3) as they seek to reenter the win column. They sit just a half-game out of the current playoff picture, situated behind four other teams, including the Sky. Zahui B and two other EuroBasket participants will make their anticipated return, perhaps throwing a small, if not welcome, obstacle into the Liberty lineup plans. Han’s continued confidence could help the Liberty take another step toward a playoff berth some saw as a pipe dream early in the season. Liberty brass has certainly taken notice
“I think she’s been working really, really hard, getting stronger, getting cardio, understanding,” Smith noted after Dallas. “(Her time and attitude) was really positive, and something we could use as we go forward to get her more comfortable.”
on Twitter @GeoffMags5490