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Brondello: Han Xu ‘way ahead’ of Brittney Griner in development

Washington Mystics v New York Liberty Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Sandy Brondello, the Liberty’s new head coach, has worked with Brittney Griner when both were with the Phoenix Mercury and now with Han Xu in New York. The two players are among the tallest players ever in WNBA, Griner at 6’9” and Han at 6’10” So Brondello knows something about post players in the women’s league.

Brondello whose husband Olaf Lange helped develop Griner into one of the WNBA’s top players in Phoenix, thinks Han has that same potential.

“He worked a lot with [6-9 Brittney Griner] in her early years in Phoenix, too, and Hanie’s way ahead of BG,” Brondello told Newsday’s Brian Heyman. “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.”

(Han has yet to go up against Griner, of course. The Mercury player has been detained by Russian authorities since mid-February after hash oil was purportedly found in her luggage as she headed home playing in the Russian league. The U.S. State Department has declared her “wrongfully detained” as it tries to get her freed.)

Brondello’s comment is just the latest example of how much the 22-year-old Chinese center has developed. Drafted at No. 14 in the 2019 WNBA Draft, Han played sparingly in her rookie year, then missed the next two seasons, the first because of concerns over COVID, the second because of her commitment to the Chinese Olympic team.

Now, though, he is thriving. Fifteen games into the WNBA season, Han is averaging 10.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 18.8 minutes, all of it off the bench for the Libs. As Heyman writes, she is a strong candidate for both Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year. She also stands a good chance of playing in the WNBA All-Star Game, backed by Chinese fans anxious to see her make it.

“I definitely want to be a WNBA All-Star,” Han told Heyman earlier this month at Barclays Center, 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.”

She also discussed how she’s improved during her two year hiatus from the Liberty.

“I think I’m a stronger player [mentally] now,’’ said Han, whose shooting splits are a gaudy 57/46/84. “Even though I’m still very young; I’m still learning, but I feel like I can easily pick myself up after having difficulties.”

Beyond her individual achievements, Han is helping the Liberty big-time. Last season, New York was one of the WNBA’s worst rebounding teams. Now, with 6’5” free agent Stefanie Dolson and Han up front Brondello has two solid post players who do everything from rebound to go out beyond the arc and shoot threes.

“For a 22-year-old, where she’s at, the sky’s the limit, really,” said Brondello. “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.”

For Han, who’s fast becoming a fan favorite, New York is an ideal landing spot.

“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.”

For Joe and Clara Wu Tsai, Han represents a big positive as well. Han could help marketing the Liberty —and the WNBA— in China where women’s sports are increasingly popular.