How Americans playing in China are growing Chinese basketball

A'ja Wilson shoots against Han Xu of China in the World Cup. Photo courtesy of FIBA.
A'ja Wilson shoots against Han Xu of China in the World Cup. Photo courtesy of FIBA. /

A Chinese-American basketball pathway yields results for both countries.

SANTA CRUZ de TENERIFE, Spain – American basketball players have been playing professionally in China for years, and that partnership between the two world super powers has narrowed the competitive gap on the court. This was a common reaction after the Americans’ 100-88 victory over China in the group stage of the FIBA World Cup on Sunday that was tight until the end.

“I played in China four years ago,” U.S. forward Nneka Ogwumike told High Post Hoops, “and they were very active teams, and today was very reminiscent of that. It’s engulfed the younger players, which is what I noticed today, and that seemed to be effective without using very many ball screens, so helping off on defense is very difficult, so I think they taught us a major lesson today, we need to be better with our defense. They put a lot of points on the board, but they made amazing shots, they’re professional, and they were able to adjust quickly.”

Breanna Stewart, the MVP of the WNBA regular season and Finals, recorded a game-high 23 points in the win and also spends her winters in China, as will Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson.

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“China is one of the best places to play overseas,” Stewart said, “as far as international players, so the fact that they improved a lot shows what they’ve done with their country and their league. You have some of the best WNBA players going over to play in China and showing them some of the standards we hold ourselves to, and they want to win and be competitive.”

With a strong history of basketball, China won the silver medal in both the 1992 Olympics and 1994 World Championships. But recent losses to the U.S. of 105-62 at the Rio Games and 87-56 at Turkey in 2014 forced China to revamp its program. Only Shao Ting, Huang Sijing and Sun Mengran remain from the team it sent to Brazil, and Xu Limin replaced Australian legend Tom Maher as head coach.

“Today we played with a U.S. team that is the best in the world and we played with them,” Xu said. “This was a very good opponent for us. We want to shorten the gap for us. This is good for us to be viewed as a good team in the world. Before I think our team is not confident enough to play in the world, but they did everything well today, and we are so proud of our team. This game proved we can be the best team in the future.”

Han Xu, at 6-foot-9, led China with 20 points on Sunday and will turn 19 on Halloween, making her 2019 WNBA draft eligible. She is one of three teenagers on the Chinese team and was holding her own against more muscular players like Tina Charles and Wilson in the paint.

“They are very strong, and we are a young team,” Han Xu said. “We need to try and think to win. Everybody showed their strengths in the game, and this was good for the new generation of the women’s basketball team.”

U.S. coach Dawn Staley knows she is going to be facing Han Xu for many years in international competition.

“She was hard to deal with,” Staley said of Han, “so effective on the inside and so effective on the outside and reads defenses so well. We had to make several adjustments tonight. We couldn’t pull away, and China is a really good basketball team. We couldn’t be a cohesive unit on defense, and that is a work on progress. The under construction sign is up on our defense.”

The U.S. has one more game in the group stage on Tuesday against Latvia, while China will face a tough Senegal team for a chance to advance to the knockout round.

“We played with America this year in April,” Shao Ting added. “We just got together, so we were young, but we trained hard for the World Cup, and today we just enjoyed the game. The coach encouraged us to play confident. She’s (Han Xu) very young, she has little experience, so all of the players just tell her to play with confidence.”