This was a young unicorn at work.
The 6-10 center took the pass beyond the three-point arc, sent the ball up and watched it come down in the basket. Not long after, she took a leap with a raised right arm and swatted away a shot like an annoying fly.
This was Han Xu in the Liberty’s recent win at Indiana.
She’s the WNBA’s tallest active player. She has mobility, three-point ability and a very smooth touch from midrange on in. And she can use that rare height to her advantage at both ends.
The Liberty drafted her 14th overall in 2019. She didn’t play much as a slender 19-year-old rookie from China, then didn’t return the next two seasons with the pandemic going on and with her 2021 Olympic commitment.
Han finally returned this season and had grown an inch. Her game, confidence and comfort level have grown, too. She’s currently a backup behind Stefanie Dolson. But Han is shooting high.
“I definitely want to be a WNBA All-Star,” she said, standing by a baseline before the opener of a two-game series against Minnesota earlier this month at Barclays Center and speaking through interpreter Cindy Chen. “I want to be one of the most memorable players on a team, and I hope people remember me in the WNBA.”
Sandy Brondello sees a progressing player with that potential to create memories.
“For a 22-year-old, where she’s at, the sky’s the limit, really,” said Brondello, in her first season coaching the Liberty after eight leading Phoenix.
“How good can she be? I don’t know. We can put her up with some really good players, to be quite honest. Her footwork in the post is really, really good.”
Brondello’s husband, Olaf Lange, who’s an assistant coach, has tutored Han.
“He worked a lot with [6-9 Brittney Griner] in her early years in Phoenix, too, and Hanie’s way ahead of BG,” Brondello said. “So you kind of compare them. That’s pretty good. BG’s one of the best post players.
“[Han’s] mobility, that’s an asset. I think the biggest thing now [to improve] is physical strength, just having the lower gravity so she can’t be pushed off the block a little bit, and finishing a little stronger at the rim when there’s a bigger body on her. Defensively, I think she’s feeling comfortable in the [scheme] that she’s in.
“ . . . Obviously, with the language barrier, that’s something else she has to navigate through. But she’s done a really, really good job.”
She’s a possibility for Sixth Woman of the Year and Most Improved Player, averaging 10.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 18.8 minutes across 12 games. She averaged 3.0 points, 0.8 rebounds and 0.2 blocks in 7.9 minutes in 18 games in 2019.
“I think I’m a stronger player [mentally] now,'' said Han, who’s shooting 56.7% overall, 46.2% on three-pointers and 84% from the line. “Even though I’m still very young; I’m still learning, but I feel like I can easily pick myself up after having difficulties.”
The Indiana game came with 6-for-8 shooting and a career-high 16 points in 15:31 — one game after she scored her previous best with 15 in the finale against Minnesota.
“She’s not afraid,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said. “ . . . She’s their most efficient player by a long shot.”
All in all, she’s happy as No. 21 in a Liberty uniform.
“New York Liberty is a very loving team,” Han said. “People help each other here. I think my teammates have helped me a lot during the process.”