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Duty calls for Team China's star trio

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2023-05-24 09:48
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From left: Han Xu, Li Meng and Yang Liwei size up their options during WNBA preseason games for the New York Liberty, Washington Mystics and Los Angeles Sparks respectively. The Team China stars will link up with the national squad to play in this summer's Asia Cup after international governing body FIBA announced that places in Olympic qualifying events would be up for grabs via its four continental tournaments. NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

Han Xu, Li Meng and Yang Liwei poised to put their WNBA careers on hold for crucial Asia Cup mission

With the Asia Cup now offering a route to the 2024 Paris Olympics, China's star players will put their WNBA adventures on hold as they answer the call of duty at the high-stakes tournament.

As the core that led Team China to a runner-up finish at last year's Women's World Cup, center Han Xu, forward Li Meng and guard Yang Liwei are expected to stand tall for their country again at next month's Asia Cup in the wake of FIBA's decision last month to offer qualification berths to Olympic qualifying tournaments at its four continental events this summer.

The international governing body had originally planned to fill these berths at pre-qualifying tournaments at the end of this year, with the altered pathway to Paris 2024 catching national programs off guard across the world, except for host France and reigning World Cup champion the USA, who have already qualified.

Team China head coach Zheng Wei admitted that interrupting her star trio's WNBA season was a tough call following FIBA's schedule alteration.

"We allowed them to chase after their own career goals in the WNBA and we pledged our full support, but the stakes are too high for this mission to take it lightly," Zheng said at a Team China training camp last week in Qingyuan, Guangdong province.

"With strong Oceania nations Australia and New Zealand and tough neighboring rivals Japan and South Korea all set to pose tough challenges at the Asia Cup, we cannot afford any slip-ups. So we need to be at our best, especially with some key players from last year's World Cup roster unavailable due to injuries."

As China's commander on the backcourt, veteran guard Yang was the first to confirm she would return from the US after the Los Angeles Sparks on Thursday announced they had released her from her preseason commitments. Yang had averaged six points, three rebounds and two assists in 16 minutes across two preseason games for the Sparks.

The prolific Li, currently on the Washington Mystics' 2023 regular-season roster, and Han, a 2019 first-round pick by the New York Liberty, have not yet decided when they will leave the US, with the WNBA season tipping off over the weekend.

Li and Han shared the court for less than a minute in a highly anticipated "Chinese derby" on Saturday as the Mystics opened with an 80-64 victory over the Liberty, which is owned by billionaire Joe Tsai, a cofounder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Li, China's top scorer at the World Cup averaging 16 points per game, was kept on the bench during the Mystics' 80-74 loss to the Connecticut Sun in their second regular-season game on Sunday; Han contributed one block in seven minutes in the Liberty's 90-73 rout of the Indiana Fever on the same day.

Li is still adapting to her WNBA rookie season, while the Liberty are highly encouraged by the progress of 6-foot-10 (2.07-meter) Han.

"You see how comfortable she is this year. It allows her to come in and just to play her game … defensively, she's grasping what we want to do," Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said of Han during preseason training.

"She still has to keep learning that part of it. Offensively, I think that comes a little quicker."

According to multiple media sources, Han and Li are expected to join Zheng's national squad in Sydney before the Asia Cup tips off on June 26.

"We are communicating with their WNBA clubs right now, but we don't know for certain whether they can or how soon they can join us before the Asia Cup," said Zheng.

"We hope to have a full-strength squad when the opening game tips off, but we will focus on what we have now and try to bring our youngsters up to the international level as soon as possible."

Having flown to Europe over the weekend for a month-long trip, Team China has at least nine warm-up games lined up against the likes of Spain, Belgium, Serbia and Australia, before arriving in Sydney on June 24.

The intensive drills in Europe, especially the matchups against fellow Olympic hopefuls, will be a great learning process for her young team, Zheng reckoned.

"Eight of our current squad have no international experience like what we are going to face. Hopefully, it will end up as a valuable trip to build chemistry, gain experience and identify our weaknesses on both ends of the floor," said the former national team player, who guided Team China to silver at last year's World Cup, also staged in Sydney, to equal the program's best result at the tournament.

Zheng also stressed that the national program's support for top Chinese players in the WNBA remains unwavering.

"We will continue backing their careers in the top overseas league. This is the only way for us to grow as a whole," she said.

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