China's Han Xu aims big at WNBA draft

As America's top college hoops stars descend upon New York City for the WNBA draft, China's Han Xu is also here, determined to stand out. Listed at 6-foot-9, the 19-year-old is the tallest and youngest prospect this year. On Wednesday at the Nike New York Headquarters in Manhattan, Han, a rising star on the Chinese national team, will make a run at the best women's professional league in the basketball world as her country looks on.

"I'm ready," Han told ESPN.com upon arriving in New York and while getting ready for a full day of events. "I've set the alarm for tomorrow."

If selected, Han, a projected first-rounder in the latest ESPN Mock Draft, will become the first Chinese draftee since the Los Angeles Sparks picked 6-foot-8 center Zheng Haixia in 1997, two-and-a-half years before Han was born in the northern Chinese city of Shijiazhuang. She will also become the fifth Chinese athlete to play in the WNBA, after predecessors Zheng, Miao Lijie, Sui Feifei and Chen Nan. Some other sites have projected Han to be drafted in the first round.

To prepare for the draft, Han came to Los Angeles at the conclusion of her first professional season in China, where she averaged 16 points, 8.6 rebounds and two blocks per game for Xinjiang. During her time in L.A., Han spent hours every day honing her technique with drill sessions and strength and conditioning work. Little time was left for enjoying the city, but she made occasional visits to the Cheesecake Factory, her favorite treat.

While in the gym, everything -- including how to move her body when running -- was under the microscope of her trainer. "I know the pace is much faster in the WNBA, so conditioning is a big challenge for me," Han said.

Thanks to her size and potential displayed at an early age, Han started practicing with the junior national team while still in high school.

"She is very gifted and also works very hard. I have high hopes for her future," said Chen Yue, Han's high school teammate who is currently a member of the Cal women's basketball team.

Early last year, Han made it to the senior national team without a single professional league appearance. In the eyes of Xu Limin, her national team coach, Han is a unique talent.

"She is young and energetic, and her understanding of the game has surpassed players of her age," Xu told ESPN.com. "However, she needs a long period of time to improve herself, including her body strength and mental toughness in dealing with difficulties."

Occasionally, Xu would check in with Han remotely, watch her training video clips and provide critiques.

"I had a chat with her before she departed for the United States," Xu said. "I told her to keep her head down and work hard, think often and thoroughly, and always ask for others' advice."

Last summer, Han drew major attention at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup when she scored a team-high 20 points against the United States. Despite the China loss, Han made a quick impression on her opponents.

"For someone that tall, I guess you don't expect her to have such a fluid game," said Nneka Ogwumike, who was on the U.S. squad. "It was really interesting to see someone [with the] amount of skills she had."

Ogwumike, who played in China this past season, won a title with Guangdong in March. However, during her time in China, she didn't get a chance to play against Han.

"It's funny because actually for me, I didn't know much about her at all," Ogwumike said. "But once I heard that she's going be attending the draft this year, I started looking her up on YouTube, and I found a bunch of footage of her playing. She can definitely run the floor, and she can shoot as far as I can see."

Ogwumike, the No. 1 overall pick of the Sparks in 2012, said there are also challenges ahead of Han.

"She's going to have to adapt to the strength of the game," said Ogwumike, whose sister Chiney also played in China and is currently an analyst for ESPN. "In the WNBA, the game is not only quicker but people are stronger."

While it might take some time for Han to get used to the physical nature of the WNBA, Ogwumike said Han's ability to fill different roles will help her transition.

"I think basketball in general is moving toward a position-less game," she said. "You need players that are very versatile."

Among a group of Chinese athletes testing the WNBA waters this year, Han is the only one attending the draft. Looking back at the months of preparation for this moment -- from English tutoring sessions during the Chinese season to practicing media interviews -- she said she is now at peace with herself, regardless of what happens Wednesday.

"All I wanted to say to myself is that I hope I will be just as normal that night and won't panic," Han said. "I want to showcase the spirit of the Chinese women's national team. And of course, I'd like to be selected."

"It will be a great journey, no matter what," Xu said. "Attending the draft is an invaluable experience to any basketball player, whether she is selected or not."

Ogwumike also has a message for Han.

"Just be grateful and know that you belong there," she said. "I know that you're meant to be there for a reason because you're great. You could just have the best time and make a lot of memories on this very special day."