Xinyi Li: Manhattan basketball’s ‘world’ underdog

One of five Chinese-born Div. I men’s hoops players


Manhattan College has a new kid on the block who can knock down threes and can freestyle with some dunking, too. The Jaspers have set in motion the latest chapter in the career of Xinyi Li, one of only five  active NCAA Division I men’s basketball players born in China.

On the surface, Li is not your average freshman. His 6–foot–9 frame is enhanced by a muscular shape. He has lethal accuracy from long range and keeps defenders honest with solid foot speed and a deceptively quick leap.

Still, Li was very much an enigma heading into his senior season at St. John Bosco High School located in southern California.

“I didn’t even know we were getting a good player,” said St. John Bosco basketball coach  Matt Dunn.

Dunn did not need to know much about Li and his past exploits to take a liking to him. Li  arrived in California just before the start of his senior season after spending three years at Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, Utah. There was raw potential, which then turned into an impact player who checked many boxes to become a Division I player.

“What in the past was a borderline Division I kid now all of a sudden was a Division I kid.,” Dunn said.

Li was a near hero at St. John Bosco High School despite only playing one season there. The Braves fell just shy of winning the state championship, falling to Corona Centennial by two points on a last-second dunk.

That match-up pitted Li against current UCLA freshman Devin Williams, a prized 6-foot-10 recruit. But Li was equipped to handle a lot of the challenges posed by Williams, according to Dunn, and held the prospect to only a few points. Dunn says Li  was a “huge part” of why the team had a chance to compete for a title.

”‘We played against a ton of high major big guys and he more than held his own,” Dunn said of Li’s counterparts who moved on to top-tier college programs.

Still, something didn’t stick with Li. His track record competing against a slew of  heralded prospects did not get the same appraisal from Division I programs across the country. Li also shot 52 percent from three during his senior season — a ridiculous conversion rate for any player, let alone a player of his size.

“I can’t remember any play shooting like that,” Dunn said of Li’s three-point shooting percentage.  “He made big shots in big games.”

What Li didn’t offer was the presence of a rim protector, but by no means was he a liability on the defensive end. He is a “capable” defender, according to his former coach. Li had a few offers to walk on and then earn a scholarship, but no full-ride offer showed up for a long time.

“To me it was really obvious what level he belonged at and it was a great struggle to find a fit for that,” Dunn said of Li.

That is where Manhattan enters the picture. Head coach John Gallagher was in the process of rebuilding a Jaspers roster which had nine seniors depart. Despite having most pieces in place, Gallagher still had a need for a big man to fill in behind sophomore Daniel Rouzan.

The game film did not lie. Gallagher liked what he saw and he chose to offer the skilled shooter a chance. However, the mystery of why  Li went under-recruited eluded Gallagher, too.

“Very strange,” Gallagher said of the  lack of suitors for Li. “I watched him on film and I studied him. I watched it over and over and I kept coming back to ‘what am I missing?’”

By joining Manhattan, Li has assumed the role of trailblazer, too. Besides Li,  there are only four other active Chinese-born Division I men’s basketball players. Geographically, the one closest to Li is Kai Yu, a 7-foot freshman who plays at Liberty University in Virginia.

It is hard to tell for sure if the paucity of Chinese born players impacted Li’s recruitment. Perhaps it was the transfer portal, as Dunn pointed out, to have the biggest impact on the recruitment of high school players such as Li.

“Any time you are breaking a norm or breaking a routine I think that could have an effect,” Dunn said. 

“I do believe it was more the transfer portal.”

Manhattan did not set out to break barriers with the move, according to Gallagher. The stars simply aligned for Li and the Jaspers, much like it did for the other 14 players brought in by the new Jaspers coach.

“Human beings are human beings,” Gallagher said. ““What makes Li great is that everyone loves to be around him.”

At 19, Li already has the distinction of representing China on the global stage. This past summer, he played in the FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup which took place in Budapest. China secured 10th place, which Li hopes to build on in the future.

“I feel very proud because it is a great honor to represent my country,” Li said. “And to have an impact on the kids who play basketball after me.”

Gallagher will deploy Li in different ways. Besides serving as a back-up center, he will also play in smaller line-ups, according to Gallagher.

“He picks up on things very well,” Gallagher said.

Dunn has viewed Li’s rise to be a resounding positive and expects that momentum to continue at Manhattan.

“I think they value what he does well and that makes for a happy marriage,” Dunn said of Li’s fit at Manhattan.

The reason Li picked up a basketball in the first place was because his mom liked to play. He started to play at 6 and fell in love with the game. Now, that same ball has brought him  across the world to the big city, and by extension, to a new family at Manhattan College.

“This experience has been wonderful,” Li said. “I am experiencing a lot of new things and my coaches and teammates have helped me adapt faster.”

Manhattan College, Xinyi Li, China, Matt Dunn, John Gallagher, men's basketball, Division I