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Han Xu of China before the WNBA women's basketball draft in New York. Photo: Xinhua

China’s Han Xu ‘like Yao Ming’ as she joins New York Liberty in WNBA draft

  • Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai owns WNBA franchise that signs 19-year-old centre as 14th overall pick
  • Li Yueru is signed by Atlanta Dream in third round of the draft as first Chinese players drafted in 22 years

Chinese basketballer Han Xu has become the first Chinese woman to play in the WNBA for 22 years after signing for the New York Liberty.

Han, 19, was in the WNBA draft held at Nike New York headquarters alongside fellow Chinese 19-year-old Li Yueru.

The Liberty drafted Han, the tallest and youngest player in the draft, in the second round with the 14th overall pick.

Li followed in the third and final round when she was selected 35th overall by the Atlanta Dream, last season’s WNBA Finals runners-up.

Han Xu (R) of China poses for a photo with WNBA’s Christy Hedgpeth. Photo: Xinhua

ESPN and several other sites had projected Han as a first-round pick.

The 6’9” (2.05 metre) centre played for China at the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup last year, where she shone against the US team, and was a 2018 Women’s Chinese Basketball Association All-Star with Xinjiang Wojiang in her debut season.

Joe Tsai, executive vice-chairman of the Alibaba Group, talks to the media in Shanghai. Photo: Simon Song

Han was in tears after signing for the Liberty.

“I cannot help crying because my parents on site let me watch a video message sent by coach Xu [the Chinese national team coach],” she told Xinhua. “It brings back the memory of hardship on the road to WNBA.”

Neither Han nor Li were born when the last Chinese player was selected in the draft back in 1997.

Yao Ming and Joe Tsai sit courtside for the Pac-12 China Game. Photo: Handout

Zheng Haixia was selected by the Los Angeles Sparks but she was in a separate draft for international players and joined the league as a 30-year-old established international who had won Olympic silver at Barcelona in 1992 and bronze in Los Angeles in 1984.

Three Chinese players – Miao Lijie, Sui Feifei and Chen Nan – have played in the WNBA in the intervening years but all entered the league outside the draft.

Joe Tsai, the owner of the New York Liberty and executive chairman of Alibaba, told Chinese online platform Toutiao that Han’s signing is as big as the Chinese trailblazers over in the NBA.

“Han Xu’s joining is like Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian,” he said.

Han Xu poses with a New York Liberty cap. Photo: Xinhua

“It will definitely play a positive role in Chinese basketball and will become a role model for young people, encouraging them to work hard to realise their dreams.”

That does not mean signing Chinese players for the sake of it.

“If there are good players in China, we will do our best to help them join the NBA and WNBA,” he said. “I don’t quite agree with finding players just for the Chinese market. It is the most important thing to play well.”

He indicated that Han’s signing was based on just that and she was in fact identified by the Liberty’s GM who had observed her for a while, with her performances for China among the reasons for the signing.

Han, who was born in Shijiazhuang before being schooled in Beijing, was selected for the senior national team before she made her professional debut.

The new Liberty signing, who won’t turn 20 until October, will get her first chance to suit up for her new team in the WNBA when the 2019 season starts on May 24 with them hosting the Indiana Fever at Westchester County Centre.

The Liberty finished fifth in the six-team Eastern Conference last season and were well out on the play-off places.

Their 7-27 record was the worst in franchise history following an 11-23 season in 2013.

Li’s Atlanta Dream also play on opening night when they host the Dallas Wings at State Farm Arena.

The first meeting between the teams is a preseason game between the teams in New York on May 14.

The teams meet in the WNBA on June 30 when the Dream host the Liberty and the return game in New York on August 23.

Before all of that the Liberty host the China national team at the Barclays Centre, the home of the NBA’s Brookyln Nets, in a preseason friendly on May 9.

Tsai, who is the majority owner of the Brooklyn Nets as well as the New York Liberty, insisted he would not have to choose between his NBA and WNBA franchises if their games clash.

“I will take the iPad in one hand and watch both games,” he said, indicating that he wants the same thing for both teams.

“My most important expectation for both teams is to build a culture of continuous winning,” he added.

Tsai and many Chinese basketball fans will hope that Han can be a part of that culture.

Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post