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Jelani Williams perseveres through first season

After three ACL tears, the Penn guard wraps a season five years in the making

Jelani Williams
Jelani Williams averaged 6.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per contest this season for Penn.
Sideline Photos

Penn coach Steve Donahue sat with Jelani Williams last month and listened to a doctor go over the prognosis.

Williams broke a finger during the Quakers’ Feb. 12 game against Harvard. He needed two screws inserted into his left hand. The recovery timeline was four to six weeks.

“The doctor’s kind of looking at me, like, ‘Don’t expect this kid to play’ kind of a look,” Donahue said.

But this was no ordinary athlete. This was the same man who lost three consecutive basketball seasons to three separate ACL tears. What was one finger?

Not enough to keep Williams from playing in Ivy Madness at the conclusion of his first and last season with the Quakers. The Penn senior achieved his dream of playing in the Ivy League tournament Saturday, but the third-seeded Quakers’ season ended with a semifinal loss to Yale 67-61.

Though Williams has two seasons of NCAA eligibility remaining, Ivy League regulations prevent him from using them as a graduate student at Penn. Donahue said he hopes Williams finds a new home where he can make a run at the NCAA Tournament.

As for what Williams will remember most about this season? The same thing that helped him recover from injury after injury, year after year.

“Outside of all the personal relationships,” Williams said. “I think the thing that I’m most grateful for and what I’ll remember the most about this team is our resilience.”

The long road back

When Donahue took the job at Penn in 2015, the first recruit he watched in person was Williams - a combo guard from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. Williams was a three-year captain and garnered some attention locally. Donahue met him and came away impressed, believing he was a foundational player around whom he could build his program.

But in December 2016, a few months after committing to Penn, he tore his left ACL during a high school tournament. His rehab kept him sidelined for his freshman year at Penn, and he was ready to play college ball in 2018 – until he tore the ACL in his right knee during a pick-up game that July.

He was cleared to get back on the court less than a year later, so he retrained his sights on his junior season. In May 2019, the right knee popped again.

Undeterred, Williams rehabbed more carefully and deliberately so he could make his return for the 2020-21 campaign. The COVID-19 pandemic had other ideas; when the Ivy League canceled all athletics for the academic year, Williams’ journey was prolonged once again.

Physical recovery was not his only challenge. On the morning of his NCAA debut, Nov. 10, 2021, Williams – then 23 years old – posted a video essay to social media he called, “Dear Mental Health.”

“The day-in and day-out grind of dealing with knee injuries can be discouraging, and at times that forced me to deal with feelings of depression,” Williams said. “But I don’t want to dwell here. I have learned a lot from my journey with mental health, things that perhaps I would not have learned without going through what I am currently going through.”

‘This is gonna be hard’

Donahue said he wanted his seniors, Williams in particular, to receive “every possible experience” when the Quakers returned to action. He loaded up their non-conference schedule with games against Florida State, Arkansas and the nationally televised Myrtle Beach Invitational, featuring Davidson and Utah State.

The Quakers started the year 3-10.

“I think five minutes into the Florida State game, I was like, ‘This is gonna be hard,’” Donahue said. “Because these kids had never played college basketball.”

But with Williams among their vocal leaders, the Quakers stuck together and put together a surprising 8-2 start in the Ivy. He credited his teammates for not backing down from the work they had to put in.

“A lot of guys, a lot of individuals would fold in those moments when you look at adversity,” Williams said. “We came in over winter break and really fought each other, so that it would be easier in the games when we got to conference play.”

While not the most regular scoring threat, Williams contributed a bit of everything at both ends, perhaps reflected best in his line from a Jan. 7 win over Cornell: nine points, seven rebounds, three steals and two assists.

Donahue noted his team’s defensive performance dropped off in the final four games without Williams, when Penn finished 1-3.

“That’s a huge aspect I think gets undersold with our success in the league, is that we rely on (Williams), and he’s never played a college game before this year,” Donahue said. “He just has a presence about him. The guys respect him so much. They see the work that he puts in. But also, he holds them accountable in a good way. He holds himself accountable.”

Gratitude in postseason defeat

Williams’ postseason debut Saturday didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. He missed all four first-half shot attempts. He fed star Jordan Dingle on a pretty alley-oop, but Dingle’s lay-in rattled out. Defensive, Williams had three steals, upping his season total to 29, and helped the Quakers stay within three at halftime.

Then Williams picked up his third and fourth fouls less than a minute apart early in the second half. He would have to spend the next 11 minutes of his final game at Penn on the bench.

He rarely sat still, leaning off his chair so far that he was basically standing in a half-crouch, calling out to his teammates every chance he could.

Despite Dingle’s 28 points, a win wasn’t in the cards for Penn. Azar Swain tallied 25 points for Yale with five 3-pointers as the Bulldogs advanced to Sunday’s league final against Princeton.

It made for an emotional coda in the losing team’s locker room. The Quakers are a young team who will return Dingle and most of their other contributors, but they had to bid farewell to their inspirational leader.

“After the game I told them that exact thing: How thankful I was for them, how I’m one call away for any of these guys that I was blessed to lead this year,” Williams said. “I got a lot of love for everybody in the locker room, everybody in the program... I love them and I’m grateful to them.”