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Where EAST meets the Northwest

CHINESE TALENT. New York Liberty center Han Xu, center, celebrates with her teammates during the second half of a Women’s National Basketball Association exhibition game against China on May 9, 2019 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Shao Ting of China, right, is defended by Breanna Stewart of the United States during an exhibition basketball game held on April 26, 2018 in Seattle, in this file photo. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #19 (October 7, 2019), page 10.

Chinese players give hope for Asian future in the WNBA

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

While the National Basketball Association (NBA) has seen players such as Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian, and Jeremy Lin on the court, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has included very few Asian and Asian-American players on the floor. In fact, the only Asian WNBA player last season was South Korea’s Ji-su Park, who played 32 games as the center for the Las Vegas Aces. But this year brought a fresh crop of Chinese talent — two rookies and one veteran — who should give Asian-American sports fans plenty to watch in the future.

With their last pick in this year’s WNBA draft, the Atlanta Dream chose 6’7" center Li Yueru, who won’t be able to play until next season because of her obligations to the Chinese national team. But Li offers loads of potential, having already led the Guangdong Dolphins to the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association (WCBA) championship last season. Look for Li to hit the court next season with another year of WCBA play, as well as International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Asia Cup experience, under her belt.

Far earlier in the WNBA draft, the New York Liberty began a new Asian era for their team by drafting Chinese center Han Xu with their second pick, the 14th overall selection. Some were surprised at the pick, as Han is only the second Chinese player to be drafted into the WNBA. (Zheng Haixia was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks in 1997, but she played only one year due to injury.)

However, those who have seen the 19-year-old Han play were not at all surprised. The starting center for the Chinese national team, Han is 6’9" — tied with Brittney Griner for the tallest in the WNBA — and has risen quickly in the international ranks.

She graduated from the NBA Academy in Shandong in 2017, where she received NBA-level coaching and other educational benefits. The following year, she joined the Xinjiang Magic Deer in the WCBA, becoming an all-star in her first season and starting for the Chinese national team as well. With both Xinjiang and the national team, Han gained exposure to elite international players and showed she could compete against them.

In the WCBA, Han averaged 15.9 points and 18.9 rebounds, and she scored 20 points when the Chinese national team played the United States at the 2018 FIBA Women’s World Cup. In 2018, she set a personal goal of joining the WNBA within three years; this year’s selection meant she beat that goal handily.

With the Liberty this season, Han has struggled to get minutes. She appeared off the bench in 18 of the team’s 34 games, two of them New York victories (the squad won only 10 games all season). Han averaged only three points in a little less than eight minutes per game, collecting 15 rebounds and blocking four shots.

Her best game came on August 30 against the Connecticut Sun, who finished in second place in the Eastern Conference. Han played more than 18 minutes, scoring 12 and shooting 2-for-2 from beyond the arc. Her 50% overall mark from three-point territory this season hints at her outside shooting ability, which will be devastating when she gains strength and confidence inside.

After the regular season, Han rejoined China’s national team, where she plays alongside captain Shao Ting. Shao also played in the WNBA this season after the Minnesota Lynx signed her to a one-year deal in April. Shao left her WCBA team, Beijing Shougang, for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

In addition to being the captain of China’s national team, Shao led her Beijing team to three straight WCBA championships before losing in last season’s semifinals. Her teammate in Beijing, Sylvia Fowles, also plays for the Lynx, and Shao had played with Minnesota in the 2017 preseason before she was the last player cut from the roster.

This season, Shao helped Minnesota win four of the five games she appeared in, but she never broke into the regular rotation. When Minnesota’s all-star center, Temi Fagbenle, returned from playing with the English national team, the Lynx waived Shao, allowing her to prepare for the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup with Team China.

Though Shao’s time with Minnesota was brief, reaching the WNBA highlights her unique career. Regarded as one of China’s top players, she won eight different titles at the college level as well as the three in the WCBA. More remarkably, she has accomplished all this while earning her doctorate in teacher education. In China, professional athletes typically never attend college; many do not even attend high school.

Shao is unlikely to earn a real shot in the WNBA of the caliber offered to Xu, but her appearance this season could give other veteran WCBA players a chance to play in the best women’s basketball league in the world. Whether other Chinese players earn that opportunity, Asian-American sports fans are sure to see more from Li Yueru and Han Xu next season, as the WNBA becomes yet another sports league that looks to the east for new talent.

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