Han Xu’s unprecedented journey from China to New York Liberty

As the whole world stood still during the pandemic, New York Liberty’s Han Xu returned to China with one goal in mind: to prepare for the WNBA. Han, who was drafted 14th overall by the New York Liberty in the 2019 WNBA draft — making her the youngest in her draft class and the second tallest player in league history at now 6-foot-10 — missed the following season due to the pandemic after playing just minutes as a rookie.

Now that she’s back, Han has become an exciting part of the Liberty’s success this season as they look to push through in the playoffs. The team made an important statement Wednesday by beating Chicago Sky in Game 1.

For Han, who is averaging 8.5 points and 3.6 rebounds in 16.8 minutes per game this season, playing with the national team over those two years allowed her to focus on working hard every opportunity—her competed in both 2021 Olympics and won a silver medal with China in the same year at FIBA ​​Asian Cup 2021.

“When I was home during the pandemic, I witnessed the Olympics and the Asia Cup and gained a lot of experience from those tournaments,” Han says through a translator. “I just kept working hard because my goal is just to prepare for the WNBA.”

Now headed for the 2022 WNBA Playoffs, she is already being dubbed the WNBA’s next Yao Ming, not only for her height and size, but for the excitement she builds around the game and inspires young girls in China. According to AP News, its highlights have millions of views on platforms in China. Back in July, Han had a 24-point performance in a win against the Las Vegas Aces, one of the league’s best teams.

Han, who grew up idolizing Ming, even had a chance to speak with the absolute great — he also gave her a bit of wisdom about the importance of working hard. “Yao told me ‘Here in America you are on your own and you have to earn everything’” says Han. “I have to fight for playing time. So basically all I have to do is work hard and earn whatever I want.”

It was a journey for her to get to this point. Born in Shijiazhuang, Han has worked to reach this point since she was young. Han was introduced to the game at an early age as both of her parents played professionally in China for a brief moment in their careers.

“My parents were both professional basketball players and they were brought here,” she says. “My mother took me to her practices and [I] watched the women’s team train. Also, we watched a lot of basketball games at home.”

She soon found that she too could play at the highest level – and it didn’t take long for her to make waves. At the NBA Academy in China, which launched its women’s program in 2018, Han emerged as one of the most impressive international young players to emerge from the Basketball Without Borders camp. Initially, Han had considered going to school, but by that point, she was already making strides in her development.

“In China you can either go to work or to school. So for the pros, there are pro youth teams for younger players, maybe 15 or 16,” Han explains. “If they choose to go to school, they can also go to high school to be physical education students and then graduate. Then they can play in college.”

For Han, who was also a member of the U17 FIBA ​​squad for Team China, the experience made her all the more aware that the path of the pros was her chosen path. “I wanted to go professional at the time because I was ahead at 18. I had already been invited to the Chinese national team. Ever since I got that invite, I’ve wanted to go pro,” she adds.

Han was the first player to graduate from the NBA Women’s Academy program in China and the academy’s first to go on to play professionally in the WNBA. “The NBA Academy is a great program for our youth players. I’m honored to be the first player, male or female, to be drafted into the WNBA.”

Despite this, she not only had to get used to a new environment and a new team, but also to the American style of basketball. “The focus [in China] more on teamwork, playing together and also a great discipline for Chinese basketball. But out here, players are definitely more confident. Sometimes there can be less teamwork here, but more star power.”

While finding her rhythm, Han is guided along the way by mentors including Stefanie Dolson, who has played overseas in China.

“I looked up [Stefanie] when I was younger ’cause she played for a CBA team [the] Jiangsu (dragon). She plays the game with a very high IQ and also has a great physique,” says Han. “She taught [me] many things. I appreciate her very much.”

If we caught up with Dolson earlier this season, she just returned the feelings about Han. “First of all, the sweetest person in the world. She’s just so young and so willing to learn and listen,” Dolson said. “She was an amazing part of this team. I think everyone loves her, adores her and I’m really excited to see how much better she can get because she’s so young.”

As she continues to gain a foothold on Liberty, Han hopes her journey will inspire others to change the culture of basketball in China for the better.

“I just hope that in the future my story can inspire the next generation to believe that if you work hard, you can achieve anything in life – anything you want in life.”

Photos via Getty Images.

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