“When in doubt, give it to Han.”
That’s what Crystal Dangerfield told me minutes before the New York Liberty tipped off on June 12 against the Chicago Sky.
With about three minutes to go in the first half, Sabrina Ionescu pitched the ball from the right wing to Stef Dolson at the top of the key, while, simultaneously, Han fought Azurá Stevens for position in the low post. Immediately upon receiving the ball, Dolson fired it into the paint, a simple high-low with all but Han spaced around the perimeter. Han snared the pass off to her right, planting her right foot just as Stevens’ momentum took her in that direction to close off the drive. Instead, Han spun back left, squaring up to the basket as she elevated for a fadeaway. A belated closeout attempt from Stevens could not disrupt Han, who canned the short jumper.
“She’s been great,” Dangerfield said. “With someone her size, you want to [get the ball]in to her and let her dominate. She’s someone who can just go up and block a shot. And she’s just a great teammate, so you want to help her out.”
Two months into the season, Han is one of five Liberty players scoring in double figures, though the only to produce those numbers as a reserve. The other four players (Sabrina Ionescu, 16.6 points per game [PPG]; Natasha Howard, 15.2 PPG; Betnijah Laney, 13.3 PPG [in four games]; and Marine Johannès, 11.7 PPG [in six games]) all average north of 30 minutes a night. Han’s 10.1 PPG production comes in at an ultra-economical 18.8 minutes per game (MPG).
By per-36 averages, Han would lead the team in scoring, with 19.4 PPG, nearly a point ahead of Ionescu’s 18.5 PPG. League-wide, that number ranks eleventh, sandwiching Han between Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jackie Young. Among players that have appeared in at least five contests and averaged 10 MPG, Han also lands at eleventh, with a 61.0 true shooting percentage. (Johannès’ supernova shooting from deep has her pacing the league at 69.6.)
“She’s efficient,” DiDi Richards said. “I can honestly say when you check in Hanny, it’s gonna be a quick 10 points. Whenever we need it, we throw Han in there.”
Playing Inside and Out
As recently as two months ago, Han’s spot in the rotation was tenuous. Early in the year, she picked up some DNPs because the matchups were ill-suited to her skill set, in Sandy Brondello’s eyes. It’s easy to forget that Han is still just 22 years old, and she struggled with physicality the last time she was in the W, back in 2019. Still, once the opportunities came, Han took full advantage, forcing her way onto the floor with consistent play. She’s notched double-figure points in nine of her 14 contests, and she’s already reset her career-high single-game scoring total on three separate occasions. Han’s play quickly earned her more minutes as she proved herself a low-usage, high-scoring asset.
Early on, it was the range. Han’s length and shooting touch combined to create a deadly mismatch. In her first four games, nearly two-thirds of Han’s points came off jump shots. Over the next four, almost 80 percent of her finishes occurred at the rim.
Han made a triple in each of her first three games; in the 11 games since, she’s made just three more on nine attempts. From those early days, though, there has been a more concentrated effort to get her down into the low post.
“We’re encouraging her to get in there a little more,” head coach Sandy Brondello told Winsidr at the time. “She’s used to floating, but her footwork is really good. She’s got a great soft touch. She’s not afraid. She’s missed a few chippies, but [it’s important] just getting her in there. She’s so big, a big target for us. Now it’s us getting used to her.”
And that’s not to say it’s not a work in progress. With so many shooters on the court for the Liberty at any given time, dropping Han into the low post with more frequency adds to the team’s ability to create space. “In the last game, I was trying to get her in there more when they were switching,” Brondello said, “and she still spaced out. So, I was yelling at her to get inside. A good inside/outside attack helps us as a team. She’s a focal point that we can actually throw it into.”
On the season, Han is shooting around the league average in both the restricted area and beyond the arc, but where she’s truly excelling is at the midrange. Her ability to convert on that part of the floor is huge for the team, because it opens up a difficult-to-defend high-low action, specifically between Han and Natasha Howard. The pair has a chemistry dating back to their time playing with one another in China, which Jackie Powell detailed for The Next.
To this point of the season, Howard has found Han five times for assists; Han has reciprocated with three dimes of her own to Howard. You can see the tandem look for each other more and more as their on-court reps increase.
“Teams aren’t gonna switch, so we’re just reading it. You don’t see a lot of post players pass to each other like that,” Howard said, “but we really have the chemistry going.”
An Outlet for the Guards
Han’s ability to score both inside and out has made her a frequent target for the more traditional playmakers, as well. That, along with her decisiveness that makes nearly every pass to her an assist attempt, has made Han a favorite for facilitators. Ionescu and Sami Whitcomb have found Han a team-best 12 times apiece, and each have spread their passes across all three levels.
“They have really good court vision and they’re great shooters,” Han said of Ionescu and Whitcomb. “They attract more defense on them, which gives [me]all the space to get a shot.” Overall, 77.2 percent of Han’s buckets come off assists. When you discount her nine putback layups, that number jumps to 93.6 percent.
I asked Sabrina Ionescu about this play from Han Xu: “Han’s a great presence inside or outside. Obviously, to have a player her height able to outrun the defense says a lot about her effort on both sides of the ball.” @Winsidr #OwnTheCrownpic.twitter.com/JqDy53L6s1
— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) June 25, 2022
Han is just one of six players to average over 10 PPG when coming off the bench for a minimum of five contests: Brionna Jones (17 games, 14.2 PPG), Jessica Shepard (6 games, 12.0 PPG), Diamond DeShields (6 games, 11.5 PPG), Brittney Sykes (7 games, 10.9 PPG), and Isabelle Harrison (5 games, 10.0 PPG). While, to this point, the Sixth Woman of the Year discussion is less of a conversation than a formality in Jones’ favor, if Connecticut opts for a larger lineup, Han could find herself in play for the accolade.
In the meantime, Han’s focus is on her continued improvement, on finding ways to utilize her dynamic skill set to earn the now-hot Liberty more victories. “[I’m] just executing what the coaches are asking for and playing the 5,” Han said. “[I’m] still trying to figure out a way to combine both on top and underneath the basket.”
If the 6’10” center has yet to hit her ceiling, Han could be a stable part of the Liberty foundation for years to come.
Note: All quotes from Han Xu were translated by her team of interpreters: Cindy Chen, Siqi Wong, and Kevin Zhang. For the purposes of this piece, the quotes have been put back into first person. All stats are updated through June 28, 2022.