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Li locked into American adventure

By SUN XIAOCHEN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-05-24 09:32
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Li Yueru's dominating performances for Team China on both ends of the court have seen her rise to prominence in recent years. Now the 23-year-old from Shanxi province-nicknamed "Baby Shaq", in reference to NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal-hopes to take her game to the next level in the WNBA with the Chicago Sky. XINHUA

Young phenom hoping to emulate Chinese hoops greats Stateside after arriving at WNBA's Chicago Sky

China's "Baby Shaq", Li Yueru, is embracing her WNBA adventure with confidence as she aspires to fill the sizable shoes of her giant predecessors.

In the early 2000s, a trio of towering stars led by Yao Ming was dubbed China's "Walking Great Wall" in the NBA. Now, Li's arrival at the WNBA's Chicago Sky has sparked hopes the young center can emulate those greats in the States.

Standing 2.01 meters tall (6-foot-7) and boasting intimidating bulk and strength, the 23-year-old's dominating international performances in recent years have drawn comparisons to NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal.

After a delay due to a prolonged visa approval, Li arrived in the US on Sunday to join her Sky teammates with the WNBA season already in progress.

"Finally, I've made my way to the WNBA, which is a dream come true for me," Li wrote on Weibo before departing for the US from Guangzhou on Saturday.

"For sure there is a huge challenge in front of me, but I am confident and ready to do my utmost to seize the opportunity to grow my game in the WNBA," she added.

As the league's defending champion, the Chicago Sky has opened the 2022 season with a 3-2 win-loss record, with head coach James Wade confident Li's physicality can be a huge asset to his team on both ends of the floor.

"Li is an established player in China and on an international level, who adds much value," said Wade, also Chicago's GM.

"This is as much about our future as it is about now. We think she is going to be a good player in the WNBA for a very long time, so we're very happy that she will be playing in a Chicago Sky uniform."

With a soft shooting touch around the rim and never lacking bravery when the going gets tough physically, Li began to attract overseas scouting attention during her first major international tournament, the 2017 Asia Cup.

Li produced more standout performances in her Olympic debut at last year's Tokyo Games, averaging 14.8 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 78.6 percent from the field over four games to help Team China reach the quarterfinals.

Li Yueru warms up for Team China before World Cup qualifying game against Nigeria on Feb 10 in Belgrade, Serbia. She averaged 16.7 points and 8 rebounds during the tournament as China won all three of its games to secure a spot at September's FIBA World Cup in Australia. GETTY IMAGES

She again made her mark by averaging 16.7 points and 8 rebounds as China won all three of its games at a qualifying event in Belgrade in February to secure a berth at September's FIBA Women's World Cup in Australia.

Asked what her rookie season in the world's most physically demanding women's league might look like, Li was keen to stress it will be a learning process.

"I know where my strengths and weaknesses are and it's unrealistic to expect a strong start from the beginning," said Li, who has helped Inner Mongolia claim back-to-back WCBA championships in the past two seasons.

"I will start with defense and rebounding, making my presence felt first from the defensive end and then trying to build my offense in the paint from there."

Li was drafted by the Atlanta Dream with the 35th overall pick in 2019, yet she decided to stay in the domestic league to gain confidence and experience, and was later traded to the Los Angeles Sparks.

The Sky acquired the rights to sign Li in March from the Sparks in a trade which sent Chicago guard Lexie Brown to Los Angeles.

With her national teammate Han Xu playing with the New York Liberty, Chicago's June 12 trip to the Big Apple is being billed at home as a "Chinese derby".

"Hopefully, the younger generation can build on the legacy left by their predecessors to keep representing Chinese basketball strongly in the US," basketball commentator Su Qun said during a live chat with Li on Weibo last week.

"Li is a different build compared to traditional Chinese centers, excelling skills-wise but also extremely strong and never intimidated by contact. I have high expectations on her to change perceptions of Chinese talent," said Su, chief editor of newspaper Basketball Pioneer.

Drafted by the Liberty at 14th overall in 2019, Han, a 2.07-meter (6-foot-10) center, has played two games this season, scoring 10 points each night.

Han and Li's presence Stateside is reviving memories of Chinese hoops' golden era in the 2000s, when the towering trio of Yao Ming (Houston Rockets), Wang Zhizhi (Dallas Mavericks) and Mengke Bateer (Denver Nuggets) was dubbed the 'Walking Great Wall'.

Li will be the seventh Chinese woman to ever play in the WNBA, where FIBA Hall of Famer Zheng Haixia blazed the trail by joining the Sparks in the league's inaugural season in 1997.

Now with a long road ahead to attain the legendary status of her predecessors, Li is endeavoring to keep a lid on expectations as she settles into a vastly different environment, both on and off the court.

"For me, I think to adapt to the cultural differences between China and the US and to overcome the language barrier to blend in with the team will be major challenges that I am excited about," she said.

Fortunately, Li will have an old acquaintance in Sky veteran Candace Parker to help her acclimate to life in the States after they both played with Guangdong in the WCBA in 2016.

"She used to treat me like an older sister back in the day," Li said of Parker, a two-time WNBA MVP(2008, 2013). "I think I will follow her everywhere in the States."

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