The New York Liberty have been mathematically eliminated from the postseason. What will it take to see more of New York’s second-round draft pick in the last four games of the season?
WHITE PLAINS, NY — There have been specific moments this summer when I almost thought the Westchester County Center was close to erupting. Close to all of those moments have come because of 19-year-old Han Xu, the Liberty’s second-round draft pick from this past April.
In the 30 minutes that Han has seen on her home court this season, the fans are always #libertyloud. And when New York trails at home, a common earworm is the relentless chants for the teenager from China.
“WE WANT HAN; WE WANT HAN,” or just simply: “HAN XU, HAN XU.”
The Han Xu fan club has tens and maybe hundreds of members. I’ve seen incarnations in all ages. Teenage boys and girls. Men and women. There is a love in this fan base for 6’9″ Han Xu.
On Tuesday before taking on the now playoff-bound Phoenix Mercury in White Plains, Katie Smith was asked about the possibility of this fan-favorite trying to gain more experience.
“Han’s probably the one that you want to see how she does against people, whether it’s bigger post players or agile post players and see where she fits,” Smith said before tipoff on Tuesday. “And on the offensive end. How she can function, and start learning and keep getting stronger?”
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Before officially facing playoff elimination at the hands of the Mercury that evening, New York’s postseason chances were slim. But Smith did say pregame that Han’s minutes against Phoenix depended on how the rest of the team showed up. And for a majority of the contest, New York was competitive in their 95-82 loss.
But Liberty faithful aren’t the only folks who believe that Han should have seen some more time even earlier this season. Writer Lindsay Gibbs spoke for many:
There are some factors that make Han’s case a bit different than that of other New York rookies Asia Durr and Marine Johannès. Han is the youngest player in the league, but also that the 19-year-old hadn’t faced some of the WNBA-caliber opponents that Durr has in college and that Johannès has in the Euroleague on Tango Bourges Basket.
Then there’s Katie Smith’s approach to the game. She’s not someone to tank. Whenever television broadcasters discuss New York’s head coach, one of the first observations of Smith is her desire to ALWAYS compete. When asked about her team’s goals for the rest of season, Smith responded immediately. “Compete, compete every night, every person who’s out there,” she said before Tuesday’s contest against the Mercury.
Brian Agler confirmed this after his Dallas Wings blew out the Liberty in the beginning of August. On Tuesday her body language proved that playoffs or no playoffs, she’ll fight until the last day of the season. “How is that a foul?” she shouted from the sidelines on Tuesday night.
While Smith’s other pieces on the Liberty aren’t the most consistent, they still compete for her. Around half of the Liberty’s losses have come on single digits. They score more points per game than two teams bound for the playoffs.
But also, Smith is cognizant of managing Han’s mental energy. She doesn’t want her rookie to lose confidence. But with enough exposure to her teammates and their trust, the China native must start somewhere. Smith knew that drafting Han was a project, and one she couldn’t engage with on her own.
“It’s more of a team effort,” she said. “I think our players have all been great with Han […] this is a grind, this is something new for her. But I think our team, in general, has done a nice job of making sure that we’ve included her off the floor but also making sure that she gets everything that she needs on the floor. Always checking in and making sure that we are not going too fast or not missing anything.”
Smith’s comments are easily confirmed via New York’s Instagram. The 19-year-old has created a game that usually finishes a Liberty practice or shoot around. Han and veteran center Amanda Zahui B. stand across from the cart that holds the basketballs for practice and they attempt to bounce pass the ball into the cart. The first person who succeeds at this has their own drop the mic type moment.
A 2019 New York Liberty social media staple has been Han’s catchphrase if she beats Zahui B. to it: “Thank you, bye-bye”. It has been given its own hashtag. #thankyoubyebye
While these moments with Zahui B. are only available on New York’s Instagram story, Han and fellow rookies Durr and Johannès helped wish Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe a happy birthday. Han performed the song in perfect English with Reshanda Gray providing an assist with the “Cha Cha Cha” in between the words “happy birthday”.
But on Tuesday against the Mercury following another hard-fought loss, the locker room was a bit shellshocked. I asked Bria Hartley what Han could provide getting more minutes down the stretch. Before she could answer, a teammate blurted out “WHAT?” in disbelief. Hartley took a deep breath and answered.
“I think her size could definitely help the team getting to the rim and blocking shots,” she said. “[Han’s] young. She still has a lot to learn. That could be why she hasn’t been out there yet, but she’s going to learn, she’s going to improve and we hope to see her in the future.”
Friday, against the potential playoff number two seed, the Connecticut Sun, remains a possibility for giving Han an opportunity to show off what she has learned in these few months. Jonquel Jones is a post player that has range similar to New York’s teenager from China.
With Tina Charles out Friday, listed as “rest”, the Liberty can give more shots to Han while improving their future draft position all at once, as writer Justin Carter noted:
In the third quarter on Tuesday when the Liberty were tied the with Mercury 55 apiece, Han motioned raising the roof of the Westchester County Center when the Liberty took the lead following a three-ball from her “Thank you, bye-bye” sparing partner, Zahui B.
The question remains, who on the Liberty will raise the roof when it is Han nailing that shot from long? And how long will the wait for that event be?
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