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Five years later, Penn's Jelani Williams ready to play

10/21/2021, 9:30am EDT
By Jason Guarente

Jason Guarente (@JasonGuarente)

(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2021-22 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 9. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)


If Jelani Williams could visit his 18-year-old self and warn him about what was coming, he’s not sure how that kid might have reacted.

Jelani Williams (above) has missed parts of the last five seasons due to injury and COVID. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Three ACL tears. Four missed seasons. Maybe such a story would have been painful to believe. Or maybe that kid, seemingly invincible with the world on a string, would have quit rather than face those difficult days.

Williams doesn’t know. How could anyone know?

What the University of Pennsylvania’s 6-foot-5 senior realizes now that he’s on the other side of it, is he didn’t just lose during this challenging time. He also gained.

“There were definitely a lot of low points just not being able to do something you love for that long,” Williams said. “What I’ve learned from that journey has made it well worth it.”

Williams will make his college debut when the ball is tossed in the air for Penn’s opener at Florida State on Nov. 10. It will arrive more than four years after he first stepped onto campus. Students have entered the school and collected their Ivy League diplomas while Williams was fighting his way back onto the court. 

Penn teammates have watched him rehab, practice and sit on the bench while everyone else played.

“A lot of players would hang them up,” junior Lucas Monroe said, “which is a testament to his perseverance.”

The first one happened around Christmas 2016. The left knee. It was a few months after Williams, a senior at Sidwell Friends in Washington D.C., sorted through his offers from Temple, Delaware and the rest and picked Penn.

The initial rehab timeline was 6-to-8 months. It was a terrible setback but not catastrophic. There was still so much more basketball ahead. That was almost five years ago.

The second one is when the story began to shift. It was August 2018. The right knee. That one brought Williams to a grim place. He took a semester off and started therapy. Giving up crossed his mind, if only briefly.

“Obviously there are points where it’s like, ‘Is this worth it? What am I even doing? Will I ever get back to where I was?’” Williams said. “In all honesty that lasted maybe a couple of days. I had a great support system that helped me to shake it off and keep pushing through it. I don’t know if I would have made it through without them.”

The third one came in July 2019. The right knee again. It was the summer before he was supposed to start his junior season.

Fifteen months have passed since Williams was cleared to play. He was denied the chance last winter when Penn canceled its season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The interminable wait grew even longer. As miserable as that sounds for someone who has gone through so much, it wasn’t the worst turn of events. Williams didn’t have to rush. He could gradually get used to game speed.

Any doubts, any fears that still lingered, had time to melt away.

“At first it felt like I just couldn’t get healthy,” Williams said. “There is a little bit of a physical and mental block. You’re not moving as well. You’re choosing your steps a little more carefully just because any second it could be a freak accident and you’re injured again. I kind of learned to take every play one at a time. Just go through it and not be afraid of it. I’ve put in all the work to get healthy. If it’s gonna happen again, it’s gonna happen again.”

A video of Williams practicing surfaced on Twitter earlier this month. The point guard made a hard drive with his left hand, bumped into a defender and put home a layup.

That scene wasn’t unusual for Williams’ coaches and his teammates. While he’s been away from the bright lights and the TV screens, he didn’t disappear completely.

“It’s funny, even though you guys haven’t seen him play games, he’s played a lot,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “He’s had semesters where he’s practiced and he’s had a foreign trip and he’s always around. So it’s not that different for us.”

Williams believes he has improved despite sitting out so long. Whatever bounce he lost in his step is overcome by his maturity, his greater understanding of the game and his more polished skills.

The senior believes he’s a better shooter. He sees the floor better. He recognizes what defenses are doing and where his teammates are going.

“You can’t even really tell he’s gone through three ACL surgeries by the way he plays, but also by his attitude,” Monroe said. “He’s like a freshman. He’s happy and getting ready to go. But he’s also going hard every day. He dives hard on the ground. He does everything everyone else does. It’s inspiring to see.”

Williams hasn’t set personal expectations for the next few months. He used to get wrapped up in that sort of thing. What did he want to accomplish? What constituted success? He discovered those answers are often outside of his control. He used to imagine the career he could have at Penn and was frustrated when those possibilities evaporated.

Williams (above) is hopeful to hear his name called for the first time on Nov. 10. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Forget goals. Williams wants to play and be part of the team. He wants to appreciate the improvements along the way. He hopes that maps out to a championship and individual success.

“One thing I learned through this process, when you write down your goals you become absorbed in chasing them,” he said. “You lose the joy of going through every day and being in the present.”

Following this season, Williams hopes to play one or two more as a graduate student somewhere else, Ivy regulations preventing him from playing at Penn as a graduate student. He still could have a college career. Just not the one he expected.

After he discussed all the details of his injuries and told stories he’s no doubt told dozens of times before, Williams used a word that was hard to believe: grateful. Not that he got hurt or that he missed so much time. That he learned so much about himself.

How that 18-year-old kid might have reacted if he’d known 6-to-8 months was going to turn into nearly five years doesn’t matter. Williams made it through. He’s going to play again. That day is almost here.

“For me it’s going to be a little bit of anxiety, but I think in a good way,” he said. “I’m back to doing what I love.”

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