It is virtually impossible to find a proper comparison for Han Xu, the 6-foot-10, 22-year-old center for the New York Liberty. Not one person I interviewed could do it.
A big who can shoot threes? Sure, but there’s big and then there’s big — Han is several inches taller than almost everyone who guards her, meaning even the centers capable of closing out on her cannot block her shot. And the diversity of her game has only grown in the 2022 season, her second in the league, after she previously logged just 143 minutes as a 19-year-old back in 2019. (COVID-19 protocols kept Han from coming to the U.S. each of the past two seasons.)
Although her head coach, Sandy Brondello, wasn’t quite sure what she had when Han reported to camp this spring, the Liberty ended up getting a two-way threat capable of reshaping what the league can expect from the center position. Han’s numbers, and potential, make a compelling case for her as one of the most valuable young players in the game — even if she isn’t easily comparable to any star from the present or past.
Already, Han is about as efficient as anyone in the game on the offensive end. Her 1.12 points-per-possession average ranks her 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 is always what I’m good at,” Han said through her translator, Cindy Chen, as we chatted courtside prior to a Liberty game earlier this month. “And I want to show it on this stage as well. And when shooting, I feel like when I don’t think too much, I don’t overthink, nobody can guard me.”
She’s right, of course.
This season, Han has posted a 55.9 effective field-goal percentage in 441 minutes, which places her seventh all-time among players 22 or younger. But even that list requires more context, since it includes players who mostly finished around the rim or didn’t serve as primary offensive options in their time on the floor. If we also set a minimum usage rate at 20 percent, the resulting list is even more impressive.
The only players ahead of Han — Nneka Ogwumike and Liz Cambage — have 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 was proficient from beyond the arc at Han’s age, while Han has hit 14 of her 29 3-point attempts this season, a 48.3 percent clip. Brondello recently joked that Han should have been in the 3-point contest, but frankly, in a world where Jonquel Jones participated last season, it’s an idea worth consideration.
Note that also on that list, among the bigs, are players like Breanna Stewart and Candace Parker; Lauren Jackson just missed the top 10 as well. Han’s company is the best of the best, in other words — though she’s taller than all of them.
For Brondello, her longtime Aussie teammate Jackson was the comparison that sprang to mind — though, like everyone else I talked to, she acknowledged it was an imperfect fit.
“Lauren Jackson, I suppose you look at that from a young age,” Brondello said. “I mean, I’ve gotten to play with her for a long time. It was amazing what she could do at such a young age here. But look, it’s more about [Han] feeling confident and comfortable in her surroundings. And I think we’re a great organization and we embrace that she comes to work [and] she wants to be better.”
While scoring is obviously the most eye-popping of Han’s tools, it’s far from the only one at her disposal. Despite her youth, and the increased defensive attention she’s faced as teams reckon with her new level of confidence, Han has a turnover rate of just 8.4 percent, good for fifth in the league. She is one of 15 players with a block rate of at least 3 percent and a steal rate of 1 percent or higher,1 on a list with some of the most impactful post defenders in the WNBA, like Brianna Turner and Cambage.
“I knew offensively, we could put her in the right positions there with the touch that she has inside and outside,” Brondello said earlier this month. “But … in the beginning, it was more about getting her up to speed defensively. It wasn’t offensively. And I think that just takes time for a young player who doesn’t speak English. And so we just had patience with her. … And it’s been wonderful to see her progression.”
In a July 6 game against the Las Vegas Aces, the world received a glimpse of just how dangerous a fully-developed Han might be. Han made 11 of her 12 shot attempts, finishing with 24 points, eight rebounds and three assists in New York’s 116-107 win.
“She’s different,” Aces big A’ja Wilson said. She noted that New York can call plays for Han to receive the ball “up where only she can get it,” a strategy Wilson said she has utilized as well. But Han has six inches on the 6-foot-4 Wilson, so in this case Wilson found herself on the other end. “In her own way, you can tell that she’s coming into her own. You can tell that New York’s doing things that make her comfortable. Bringing out things in her game, which is good.”
Not that Wilson had a comp for her, either.
“I can’t even think of someone [like her] on the NBA side of it,” Wilson said. “It’s just something that she is.”
One of the closest comparisons I’ve found is Emma Meesseman, who in her age-22 season posted an effective field-goal percentage of 56.6 percent, a stone’s throw from Han’s 56.0 mark, while hitting six of 13 3-point attempts, a similar rate of success (though not as prolific). Meesseman made an All-Star team that year, her first of two, winning WNBA Finals MVP in 2019. Now, she looks on course to help take the Chicago Sky on another deep playoff run in 2022.
Of course, Meesseman is 6-foot-4 — and Emma Meesseman plus six inches 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 D.C. “But I think, like you said, there haven’t been any 6-10 players [like Han]. … I think she’s done an incredible job of just taking what she has as a package and making it really good.”
For her part, Han has no shortage of role models. But she’s as aware as anyone that the course she’s 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 not a single person I want to become — I just want to become myself.”
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