Han Xu is unlike any player the WNBA has seen
It’s nearly impossible to find a fitting comparison for Han Xu, the 6-foot-10, 22-year-old center for the New York Liberty. Not a single person I interviewed could do that.
A big one who can shoot three? Sure, but there’s big and then there’s big – Han is several inches taller than almost everyone guarding her, which means even crosses that can close in on her can’t block her shot. And the diversity of his game has only grown in the 2022 season, his second in the league, having previously logged just 143 minutes as a 19-year-old in 2019. (COVID-19 protocols prevented Han from coming to the United States each of the last two seasons.)
Although her head coach, Sandy Brondello, wasn’t quite sure what she had when Han showed up for camp this spring, the Liberty ended up getting a two-way threat who could reshape that. the league can expect from the central position. Han’s numbers and potential make a compelling case for her as one of the game’s most valuable young players, even if she doesn’t easily compare to a star of the present or past.
Already, Han is about as effective as anyone in the game on the offensive side. His average of 1.12 points per possession ranks him fifth in the WNBA among players with at least five games played, just ahead of WNBA royalty Sylvia Fowles and Nneka Ogwumike.
“Since I was young, shooting has always been what I’m good at,” Han said through his interpreter, Cindy Chen, as we chatted on the court before a Liberty game earlier this month- this. “And I want to show that on this stage as well. And when filming, I feel like when I don’t think too much, I don’t think too much, nobody can protect me.
She is right, of course.
This season, Han has posted an effective percentage of 55.9 field goals in 441 minutes, which ranks her seventh among players 22 or younger. But even this list requires more context, as it includes players who either mostly finished around the rim or didn’t serve as primary attacking options during their time on the pitch. If we also set a minimum utilization rate of 20%, the resulting list is even more impressive.
|Nneka Ogwumike||2013||22||THE ACE||25.8||23.8%||56.9%|
|Dangerous field of crystal||2020||22||MIN||30.0||24.6||53.6|
|Nneka Ogwumike||2012||21||THE ACE||27.9||20.5||53.6|
|Candice Parker||2008||22||THE ACE||33.6||24.6||53.5|
The only players ahead of Han — Nneka Ogwumike and Liz Cambage — combined for a collective 11 All-Star Game appearances, an MVP and the single-game points record since that 2013 season. And neither of them have was proficient beyond the arc at Han’s age, as Han made 14 of 29 3-point attempts this season, a 48.3% clip. Brondello recently joked that Han should have been in the 3-point contest, but frankly, in a world where Jonquel Jones competed last season, it’s an idea worth considering.
Note that on this list as well, among the greats are players like Breanna Stewart and Candace Parker; Lauren Jackson also just missed out on the top 10. In other words, Han’s company is the best of the best, despite being bigger than them all.
For Brondello, her longtime Australian teammate Jackson was the comparison that came to mind – although, like everyone I spoke to, she acknowledged it was an imperfect fit.
“Lauren Jackson, I guess you’ve been watching this from a very young age,” Brondello said. “I mean, I had the opportunity to play with her for a long time. It was amazing what she could do here at such a young age. But look, it’s more about [Han] feel confident and comfortable in their environment. And I think we are a great organization and we accept her coming to work [and] she wants to be better.
While notation is obviously Han’s most mind-boggling tool, it’s far from the only one at his disposal. Despite her youth and the increased defensive attention she faces as teams rely on her new level of confidence, Han has a turnover rate of just 8.4%, good for fifth place in the league. She is one of 15 players with a block rate of at least 3% and a steal rate of 1% or more, on a roster along with some of the WNBA’s most influential defensemen, like Brianna Turner and Cambage.
“I knew offensively we could put her in the right positions there with the touch she has inside and outside,” Brondello said earlier this month. “But…at first it was more about leveling her up defensively. It was not offensive. And I think it just takes time for a young player who doesn’t speak English. And so we just had patience with her. …And it was wonderful to see his progression.
In a July 6 match against the Las Vegas Aces, the world got a taste of just how dangerous a fully grown Han is. Han made 11 of 12 shot attempts, finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds and three assists in New York’s 116-107 victory.
“She’s different,” said the great A’ja Wilson. She noted that New York can call plays for Han to receive the ball “where only she can get it”, a strategy Wilson also used. But Han is six inches on the 6-foot-4 Wilson, so in this case Wilson ended up on the other end. “In her own way, you can tell she comes into her own. You can tell that New York does things that make her feel comfortable. Bringing out things in his game, which is good.
Not that Wilson had a model for her either.
“I can’t even think of anyone [like her] on the NBA side,” Wilson said. “It’s just something she is.”
One of the closest comparisons I’ve found is Emma Meesseman, who in her 22-year-old season posted an effective field goal percentage of 56.6%, a stone’s throw from Han’s mark of 56.0, while making six of 13 3-point attempts, a similar (but not as prolific) success rate. Meesseman made an All-Star team that year, her first of two, winning the WNBA Finals MVP in 2019. Now she’s looking on track to help the Chicago Sky enter another series of deep playoffs in 2022.
Of course, Meesseman is 6ft 4in – and Emma Meesseman plus six is a very different player!
“I think Emma is, in a way, a good comparison,” her Liberty teammate Stefanie Dolson, who also played with Meesseman in DC “But I think, like you said, he’s not there were no 6-10 players [like Han]. …I think she’s done an amazing job of just taking what she’s got and making it really good.
For his part, Han has no shortage of role models. But she is as aware as anyone that the path she has charted is her own.
“There are so many [centers] in the league that I look up to,” Han said, clearly speaking figuratively and not literally. “I want to play as smart as Sylvia Fowles, as physical as Jonquel Jones. But there’s no one person I want to become – I just want to become myself.
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