Han Xu’s Return Adds Much-Needed Size to the New York Liberty
Han Xu is on an island, isolated on defense at the top of the key. It’s day four of training camp, and the Liberty are scrimmaging against a team of male practice players. Her opponent flinches right—a quick-twitch head fake—and Han sags off a half-step. He rises to shoot, but she recovers quickly, her arm stretched high to affect the shot, which barely grazes the front of the rim before falling into Betnijah Laney’s waiting arms. Laney pushes in transition, as has been Coach Sandy Brondello’s direction all through camp. By the time the 2021 All-Star crosses half court, she knows where she’s going. Han, after contesting the shot, had sprinted down the court and started to work for position, looking to score on the opponent she’d just shut down on the other end. She had him pinned deep in the post, left hand held high for the pass. Laney recognized the seal and fired the ball inside. Han caught, spun quickly into the paint, and finished with a soft lefty hook shot.
The New York Liberty franchise looks very different than it did the last time Han suited up, back in 2019, in the seafoam-and-black. Everything has gotten a facelift since then: the venue (after a much-needed move from Westchester to Brooklyn), the uniforms (some of the freshest across the WNBA), and—most importantly—the roster.
Han, now 22, has also improved in the intervening years. She’s even grown another inch. “I’ve gotten some muscles,” Han said. She had struggled with the physicality down low the last time she competed in the W. “I played in the Tokyo Olympics and other games for the national team. I definitely gained a lot of experience by playing in those very high-intensity games.”
In those 2020 Olympics, Han played 15.5 minutes a night across Team China’s four contests, winning their first three matchups before falling to Serbia in the quarterfinals. In that limited action, she impressed, averaging 9.5 points per game (PPG), 7.3 rebounds per game (RPG), and a team-best 2.0 blocks per game (BPG), while shooting an efficient 60 percent from the field. During its undefeated group play, Han and Team China bested the Australian Opals, a squad led by Brondello and featuring current teammates Sami Whitcomb and Rebecca Allen.
“I’ve obviously coached against her a lot with the Opals and it’s been really fun to see her development,” Brondello said, three days into training camp at the Barclays Center. “You always look to see: will she be physical, how does she run? She actually moves really well. She’s very skilled for a big player. Great chemistry. Good, good hands. So I’m excited just to keep building it up and see how we can use her, because she certainly has the ability.”
In the recent FIBA qualifiers, Han made the most of her limited court time. In just 39 minutes of action across three games, all wins for China, she scored 30 points and pulled down nine rebounds. New York had overseas prospects on a pair of the teams Han faced: France (Marine Johannès and Marine Fauthoux) and Mali (Sika Koné). The depth of international talent under Liberty control is strong, though the timeline for some of those players to cross the Atlantic is still hazy.
There was no guarantee Han would have another shot at the WNBA; she hadn’t returned to New York since her last stint. She, like several other international players, missed the 2020 and 2021 seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, this won’t be her first time playing at the Barclays Center. In fact, it’s where she made her debut, dressing for New York in an exhibition against the Chinese National Team ahead of her rookie campaign. In that contest, Han showcased her soft touch, tying Kia Nurse with a team-high 19 points on an efficient six-of-eight shooting. The Liberty played one regular season game at Barclays that year, a loss to the Seattle Storm; Han went scoreless in six minutes of action.
This time around, she’ll get to call Brooklyn home full-time. “This refreshed my memories of how cool and how chic Brooklyn is. I love how, in the streets, a lot of people are doing performances. For example, the motorcycles. It’s so cool to see stuff like that. And to have the opportunity to play at the Barclays Center. Everything is so fancy, so new.”
The Liberty are again on defense. This time, Han and Laney are navigating a pick-and-roll at the right elbow extended. A skip pass takes the action away from them, leading to a quick drive on the far side of the court. Kylee Shook is there to block the shot and quickly outlet the ball to Laney. As soon as Shook swatted the attempt, Han took off. Laney spotted her ahead of the pack and lobbed a perfect pass over the top. Mid-stride, Han catches and finishes the lefty layup, ahead of the pack.
Despite the near-complete roster turnover since Han last repped New York, there’s still a level of familiarity here. On media day, both Han and AD delivered sweet anecdotes about their past experiences together. “Starting in 2019, Hanny and I, we clicked,” AD told our Geoff Maggliocchetti. “It was flowing, we didn’t force anything. We started together, making sure the vets had their heat packs; we just embraced that role. Picking up here in 2022, we didn’t miss a beat.”
Han and AD were also, of course, teammates with Allen, though she has not yet arrived at camp as she finishes her postseason with Valencia in Spain. Still, there was one more familiar face in camp.
Back in 2019, Han and forward Natasha Howard were teammates in China, both members of Xinjiang Magic Deer. After one practice last week in which the pair combined for four or five high-low scores, I asked Howard about that connection. “Me and her getting that chemistry back again is amazing,” Howard said. “I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting down there. Seeing her grow over the years and being more physical, it’s really good for our team.”
Coach Brondello has also taken notice. “That’s why I keep them together a lot.”
For Han, it’s not just about the comfort of recognizing Howard. She also knows there’s a lot she can learn from the former All-WNBA first teamer. “She’s very aggressive and very skilled,” Han said. “I want to be somebody like that. I’m so excited to see what Natasha can bring to the team and what I can learn from her.”
With just one more roster cut still to come, it’s looking likely that Han will remain in Brooklyn for the foreseeable future. While her strength down low will still be tested, the Liberty will take the court with more frontcourt depth than they’ve carried in years. More often than not, Han will set up on the block, which slots her in seamlessly next to Howard or Stef Dolson, who comes over from the champion Chicago Sky.
And as for Han’s goals? She’s ready for whatever role the Liberty have for her. “Even though I’m really young, I’m willing to take the initiative to do everything I can to contribute to winning more games. I’m here to learn and to grow.”
Note: All quotes from Han Xu were translated by her interpreter, Cindy Chen. For the purposes of this piece, the quotes have been put back into first person.