Han Xu, the tallest player in the WNBA, hunched over the menu at a trendy Brooklyn pizza spot, trying to figure out what to order in a place that lists “bèchamel” as an ingredient. This would possibly be difficult even if she could read English, but the Chinese center does not. Decked head to toe in American basketball brands, her massive hands flew around the fine print as she shot rapid questions to a translator in Mandarin. Here, in the type of gentrified place that now charges for a pizza what a former occupant of the building used to ask for an oil change, the menu is particularly tricky to parse.
After consulting on nearly every ingredient on every dish, Han picked a sausage and pepperoni pizza, and was pleased with her choice until it came out with pickled chiles on top. She doesn’t do chiles. Starving, she had to spend the first five minutes of the meal forking off the little green heat sources before she could begin putting away the entire 12-inch pizza. It was just another minor inconvenience in a stretch of weeks that had been defined by them.
Two months after moving to Brooklyn, Han was still trying to find her footing. The 6-foot-9 center is just 19, making her not only the second-tallest player in WNBA history, but also one of the youngest players in the league. When the New York Liberty took her with the 14th overall pick during this spring’s draft, she became the first player from China drafted into the league since 1997.
You can probably see where this is going. Everyone from American journalists to billionaire Liberty owner (and Alibaba co-founder) Joe Tsai have liberally compared Han to Yao Ming, the best basketball player in Chinese history. The South China Morning Post, The Athletic, and The New York Times are among the publications that have invoked the Yao comparison.
It’s not just the press that have built the hype, either. NBA shooting coach David Nurse (nephew of Raptors coach Nick Nurse) calls Han a Kristaps Porzingis-like player, someone capable of combining height with outside shooting to change how the women’s game is played. The coach of the Chinese National Team says she has the talent to be the best player in the world.
All of this leaves Han to deal with a head-bursting amount of pressure. She’s a teenager trying to figure out how to live in a foreign city where she doesn’t speak the language, a professional basketball player who needs to learn how to capitalize on her undeniable physical gifts, and a Chinese woman being asked to live up to the legacy of the most famous athlete in her country’s history. On top of all that, she’s always hungry. A good meal has been hard to find.
The Liberty kicked off their season against the Indiana Fever on May 24. Han spent the bus ride to the arena looking at pictures of meals she ate back in China. She was so hungry that she worried her teammates would see her drooling. She spent most of the game on the bench, and even though she wanted to cheer her teammates on, she refrained for fear of saying the wrong thing. She did plenty of clapping, though, and later pointed out, with a big grin, that she is an extremely loud clapper.
Han got in the game for 65 total seconds, picking up a foul and failing to score. Her second game produced seven points in 11 minutes, as well as the first three-pointer of her career, but she didn’t check into the game until the Liberty were down by 25. She was a healthy scratch in the Liberty’s third game, got another 65 seconds of playing time in the fourth, and was scratched again in the fifth and sixth games.
Han has played below her own expectations this season. She weighs 193 pounds, almost 60 pounds lighter than Liberty starter Amanda Zahui B and most other WNBA centers, and has trouble with offensive positioning and physicality below the rim, not to mention rebounding. But what made the inauspicious start to her career even harder to deal with was that, because of the language barrier between her and her teammates, she hasn’t had anyone to talk about it with.
“It causes me to spend a lot of time by myself with my own thoughts,” Han said through her translator. “It’s difficult to not have teammates to talk about it with. I do talk about it with my former teammates in China, but in China, they don’t really talk about the mental game that much, so it feels the same in that department. It’s a lot of bottling it in, and that’s difficult.”
Much of Han’s experience in the WNBA so far has been defined by isolation. When not attempting to decipher the meaning of American basketball terms at practice, she spends her time watching Chinese TV shows on her iPad inside her sparse Brooklyn apartment. She has exactly one familiar face in New York, a former middle-school classmate here for summer break, and she won’t see her family until August at the earliest. The one person on the Liberty she could truly communicate with, her interpreter, had trouble translating basketball terms. Han asked for a replacement translator, and now has to get to know her new one.
Han’s not used to being so alone, or so far out on the periphery of the action. Before making her way to the U.S., she was a wrecking ball in Shijiazhuang, a provincial city southwest of Beijing. She had so much energy as a kid that her grandma refused to go out in public with her alone, knowing Han would sprint off the first chance she got. Instead of homework, she spearheaded afternoon games of tag and hide-and-seek by running around her family’s apartment complex and knocking on the doors of the other only children in the community. When there was no one to play with, she careened around the basketball courts where her parents, both pro players in China, practiced, or watched the game on TV. Basketball was always around. She assumed that she’d play in college, but didn’t give much thought to making basketball a career.
Only one thing could slow Han down in those days: department stores. She despised trying things on with her mom, instead choosing to sit down at the front of the store in protest. This was a problem, as Han constantly needed new clothes.
She was always tall, but around age 12, she began to sprout. First she zoomed past her male peers, then her 5-foot-11 mom. By high school, she stood eye to eye with her 6-foot-9 father. Not just tall, but a towering rarity perpetually outgrowing her wardrobe. She hated feeling like a giant whenever she had to go try on yet another new pair of pants, so sitting on the floor in protest felt like the best solution.
After the growth spurt, she caught the eye of national team coaches and tried out for China’s U-17 squad. As she began shooting more frequently from the high post and creating her own shot, her confidence grew, and she started viewing herself as a skilled athlete rather than just a tall body. She made the team and was soon invited to the NBA Academy in Shandong Province, where she led her provincial team in scoring, rebounds, and blocks en route to a U-19 National Championship.
Han’s year in the Academy set the table for the 2018 Women’s World Cup, where she landed on the American scouting radar by leading Team China with 20 points against Team USA. The heavily favored Americans won both the game and the tournament, but the 12-point margin of victory was the closest between the teams in 35 years.
From there, Han played a year in the Chinese Women’s Basketball Association. As an 18-year old playing against grown women—including elite American players like Connecticut’s Morgan Tuck and Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles, both of whom were there to make extra money in the WNBA offseason—she averaged 16 points and almost 9 rebounds per game, and finished third in the league in blocks for the Xinjiang Magic Deer.
Still, her draft stock fluctuated throughout the winter, in part because of how few Chinese players have made it to the WNBA. Only four have ever made the transition, and none have lasted longer than two seasons. The most successful Chinese player, Zheng Haixia, retired in 1998, before Han was born.
So when Han walked into a gym at UCLA for pre-draft workouts with David Nurse, a former shooting coach for the Nets who privately trains a slew of NBA players, he didn’t know what to expect. The two had been connected through Casey Wasserman’s agency, which represents Han and employs Nurse as a trainer, but Nurse had never worked with a female player that tall, much less one who didn’t speak English.
Immediately, he noticed how fluid she was on the court. Silky, he says now. Six-foot-nine and moving like a guard. To test his observations, he handed Han a ball and asked her to shoot three-pointers from NBA distance. She had trouble communicating that she didn’t really shoot threes, had hardly even practiced them, so she just started hoisting.
Han’s first shot went in, then the second, and suddenly she had hit her first seven attempts from NBA range. The training regimen Nurse had prepared for her went right out the window. Instead of post moves, they spent three straight weeks on her shooting range, pick-and-roll footwork, and lateral mobility. Nurse remembers her being extremely impressionable, someone so intent on learning correctly that when he absentmindedly scratched his head while teaching her a new yoga pose, he turned around and saw her itching the same spot.
In 2019, combining height with shooting range is a borderline superpower. For more than 20 years, the WNBA has been a league where most offenses run through a dominant center in the post, but as with the NBA, teams are starting to find more scoring space farther away from the rim. In 2015, not a single WNBA team attempted more than 20 three-pointers a game. In 2018, seven teams did that, more than half the league.
In April, when the Liberty took Han with the second pick of the second round, 14th overall, Nurse felt like the team got the biggest steal in the draft.
“I don’t think there’s been many players like her, so it’s hard to say just how good she could be,” Nurse said. “I think she can be more than just an All-Star, she can have an impact overall on how the game is played. She could change the way the position is played. That’s a lot on her shoulders but I think she can do it.”
When the Houston Rockets selected 7-foot-6 Yao Ming with the first overall pick of the 2002 NBA draft, the trajectory of international basketball supposedly changed forever, even more so after he became the first and only player from outside the U.S. to lead the league in All-Star votes.
Since Yao retired in 2011, though, the talent pipeline from China to the U.S. has gone dry. Just two Chinese players have made the NBA since, and no offense to Yi Jianlian (7.9 points per game in 5 seasons) or Zhou Qi (1.2 ppg for the Houston Rockets last season), but neither was Yao. This from a country that has roughly as many people playing organized basketball as the U.S. has total citizens.
But hundreds of millions of basketball-obsessed Chinese people have had no current players to follow in the NBA or WNBA in recent years. The more Chinese players in the U.S., the thinking goes, the stronger the fan base becomes. It’s enough of an issue that before the 2017 NBA Finals, Commissioner Adam Silver said he was “frustrated” with the lack of Chinese players in the NBA.
So in 2016, the league formed the NBA Academy, a network of elite basketball training centers around the world that bring American coaches and structure to foreign countries. Players’ eating, sleeping, and studying schedules revolve entirely around basketball. The first three were created in China, and there are now seven worldwide that have placed more than 10 players in Division I basketball programs. As the first player to be drafted into either the WNBA or the NBA from an NBA Academy, Han represents a significant achievement.
“I wouldn’t say that we can take credit for finding Han, she’s not exactly hard to find in a crowd of players, but we’re absolutely proud of the work our coaches could do with her in her year there,” said Chris Ebersole, the NBA’s director of international basketball operations and elite basketball. “Part of the reason we started the NBA Academy Program was to enhance our programs in markets where we felt like we should be producing more NBA and WNBA players. Obviously China has a rich history with Yao and Yi on the men’s side, so we knew the potential was there. It was just a matter of drawing it out.”
Han’s arrival in the WNBA is a development she never really anticipated. When asked why she decided to come play in America rather than stay in the Chinese professional league—where she could have made a lot more money—Han doesn’t sound like someone with any sort of grand plan. “Playing in school, then the WCBA, then getting drafted, it just all happened so fast that it didn’t seem like it was a goal being reached,” she said. “It happened so quickly I didn’t even have time to concentrate on it. For me, it’s more of a goal to get to a higher place, whether that’s the WNBA or something higher.”
The comparisons to Yao started almost immediately after she was drafted, even though he already had five years of professional basketball under his belt by the time he reached the NBA, and Han is a 19-year-old with only one year of pro experience. The two talked before Han left for the U.S., and though she says it was a helpful conversation, she wishes she’d asked more questions. The transition has been harder than she anticipated, and he understands it in a way almost no one else can.
She doesn’t have the opportunity to ask him for more help, though. Despite being constantly compared to the best player in the history of her country, Han doesn’t even have Yao’s phone number.
“He’s always been my hero, I’ve seen him play, so he’s always been a role model for me,” Han said through her translator. “But nobody likes to be called a version of someone else. I just want to be the best myself I can be and showcase myself.”
The Liberty are well aware of Han’s potential to introduce the franchise to millions of new fans (and thus dollars) in China. In early May, the team invited the Chinese National Team to New York for an exhibition game. The event functioned as both a coronation and reunion for Han, who found herself under a spotlight uncommon for 14th overall picks who have yet to play a single WNBA game. She spent the pre-game galloping between warmups and meetings with the press (more than 100 reporters were credentialed). The stands were divided between Liberty and China fans, and Han received the loudest applause of the night when she was introduced in the starting lineup.
Playing against her national peers, she tied for the Liberty lead in scoring with 19 points in an 89-71 win. She spent most of the game working from the post and careening off pick-and-rolls, showing a touch near the rim that made her basically unguardable with the right kind of entry pass. Operating with the coordination of someone a foot shorter, it was an impressive performance in her WNBA debut. Liberty owner Joe Tsai even stood and gave her a high-five when she checked out.
Before the game, Tsai had held court with reporters from both the American and Chinese press, alternately speaking English and Mandarin. The Taiwanese-Canadian billionaire spoke about how he hoped the exhibition game would continue to build a bridge between cultures.
“For me, I’m sort of steeped in this discussion,” Tsai said. “I find myself having to explain China to Americans a lot. So this game, by bringing the national women’s team from China, is a platform for the two peoples and cultures to see how each other compete and learn a little bit more about each other’s cultures. I think this kind of people-to-people exchange is absolutely important.”
One preseason game is obviously not enough to initiate such a cultural exchange, but Tsai sees Han as possessing a unique ability to build a bridge between his franchise and Chinese basketball fans. That can only happen, though, if Han becomes a true superstar. Watching her glide around the court and dominate a game against her former teammates, it was hard not to see the outline of a player capable of meeting all the professional and cultural expectations that had been laid out for her.
After the game, though, Liberty head coach Katie Smith was quick to yank some heads out of the clouds. She praised Han’s shooting and scoring, but also pointed out flaws in the young center’s game: physicality, rim protection, and communication. Smith even jokingly instructed Han’s translator to “not let [Han’s] head get too big.”
On the Chinese side, coach Limin Xu said that Han has the talent to be the best player in the world. “The WNBA is the best league in the world, so every player wants to play here,” Xu said. “My dream is to win the gold medal in the Olympic games, and we want more players to play in the WNBA to make that dream come true.
“Through Han Xu and Joe Tsai, we can show the world we are working together to fight to be the strongest team in the world in the future.”
The announced viewership numbers—1.2 million viewers across four Chinese networks plus 6.3 million video views on social media, according to a WNBA press release—were encouraging, but the glow of that exhibition match didn’t last long. So far, Han’s professional career has produced almost as many DNPs as minutes played, and the Liberty don’t look like real contenders.
The Liberty as a whole are, in many ways, as in flux as their Chinese rookie. The team has one of the best post players in league history, six-time All-Star and former MVP Tina Charles, but went 7-27 last season in Smith’s first year and is 2-4 so far this season. Their first win this year snapped a 17-game losing streak going back to last season, tied for the third-longest losing streak in WNBA history. They recently went from playing in Madison Square Garden to the Westchester County Center, a 5,000-seat arena in White Plains. There have been rumblings of moving to the Barclays Center full-time after Tsai bought the team—they already practice in Brooklyn and most of the players live there—but that can’t happen until the 2020 season at the earliest.
At some point, especially if the Liberty continue to struggle, Han should get a chance to show what she can do in competitive game action. Regular playing time can’t make her feel any less isolated, but it will allow her to begin moving forward. The sooner she can start defining herself as a pro basketball player, the sooner she can begin wrestling with all the expectations hanging on her every action.
Han’s still waiting for that chance, though, and she’s waiting alone. As she left the Brooklyn pizzeria where we had spent a few hours talking, she took long strides to avoid hitting her head on the spinning ceiling fans above her. A dramatic duck through the door frame brought her outside, where she began mapping out the rest of her day. She resolved to go to the store, and made a joke about buying some vegetables to supplant the bags of rice in her apartment.
The Liberty PR rep who ate lunch with us went left, Han’s translator went right, and the young center went her own way.
Everett Cook is a freelance writer in Queens. Send recipes or whatever else to firstname.lastname@example.org.