WNBA draft "dream come true" for China's Han Xu

New York Liberty make 19-year-old 2.07m-tall centre Han Xu the 14th overall pick and China's first since 1997.

Han Xu is China's next big thing.

At 2.07m (6'9'') tall and just 19 years old, Han was picked by the New York Liberty in the second round of the WNBA draft.

She is the first NBA Academy graduate to be drafted into the NBA or WNBA having spent 2017 at the NBA Academy Shandong.

The only previous Chinese player selected in the WNBA draft was double Olympic medallist Zheng Haixia in 1997, before Han was even born.

With her imposing height and quick hands, there are obvious comparisons between her and men's pioneer Yao Ming.

And Xu has the talent to make a similar impact on the women's game.

Han's meteoric rise to the WNBA

Born in the northern Chinese city of Shijiazhuang, Han started playing basketball at nine and made the senior national team while still at high school.

In her first professional season in China's WCBA, Han averaged 16 points, 8.6 rebounds and two blocks per game for Xinjiang Tianshan which saw her selected for the WCBA All-Star Game.

She then made her mark for her country at last September's FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup in Tenerife, Spain, scoring a team-high 20 points in the group stages against the USA.

Han could not prevent China going down 100-88 to the eventual champions, but she also impressed in the classification match win over Canada with 12 points and nine rebounds.

And her performances attracted the attention of the American scouts.

Joining an elite club

Rather than relaxing after a demanding season, China's young star went to Los Angeles to work hard on fulfilling her WNBA dream.

Han focused on raising her game, spending hours on strength, conditioning, shooting and technique, doing drill after drill.

"During my stay in Los Angeles this year in preparation for the draft, the coach of New York Liberty came to see my training." - Han Xu to Xinhuanet

Apart from the odd treat at LA's Cheesecake Factory, Han's focus was on reaching her goal and enjoying the city later.

It paid off, and Han Xu will become the fifth Chinese player in the WNBA.

Her fellow centre Zheng was the first for the Los Angeles Sparks, followed by point guard Miao Lijie and small forward Sui Feifei who were both signed by the Sacramento Monarchs in 2005.

The fourth was another centre, Chen Nan, who played for Chicago Sky in the 2009 season.

Now Han has an exciting career ahead of her, but she's fully aware that the real work has only just begun.

"I know the pace is much faster in the WNBA, so conditioning is a big challenge for me" - Han Xu to ESPN

WNBA the best league on the planet

A quarter of a million people on average tuned in to watch each WNBA match in 2018 - a six-year high and a 38% rise on the previous year.

The professional league provides the resources and experts to get the most out of each player and, at 19, Han has plenty of scope for development both in terms of her physique and gameplay.

She joins a team in need of her help too.

The New York Liberty finished 11th in the 12-team WNBA last season and their 7-27 record was their worst in franchise history.

Han Xu (R) playing for China against Japan ahead of the 2018 Asian Games
Han Xu (R) playing for China against Japan ahead of the 2018 Asian GamesHan Xu (R) playing for China against Japan ahead of the 2018 Asian Games

Han Xu at Tokyo 2020?

The WNBA was founded in April 1996 with the first matches taking place the following year, hot on the heels of USA's gold medal at Atlanta 1996.

And the league takes a month off in every Olympic year to allow players to take part at the Games.

So there is a good chance we will see Han at Tokyo 2020.

At Rio 2016, 26 WNBA players from 11 of the 12 franchises took part, representing nine different countries.

The USA claimed their sixth consecutive Olympic title, defeating Spain 101-72 in the final.

China's Olympic future

China failed to get out of their group in Rio after being drawn in a tough group with USA, Canada (quarter-finalists), Spain (silver medallists), and Serbia (bronze medallists).

But the future looks bright with Han part of the team which took gold at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.

Han was not the only Chinese name in the WNBA mix.

Guard Li Meng and centre Sun Mengran, who both play for WCBA club Bayi Kylin, were drafted but opted not to play in the WNBA this year.

Li received a contract offer from Minnesota Lynx, while 2016 Olympian Sun was picked by Atlanta Dream.

According to Chinese news outlet Xinhuanet, both players "are preparing for the upcoming CISM Military World Games and the Olympic Games' qualifying tournament".

Asia's Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournaments take place in November with four teams, including hosts Japan, advancing to the global qualifiers next February.

China's best result at a Games in women's basketball was silver at Barcelona 1992 behind CIS, the former Soviet Union.

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