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Credit: Chase Sutton

Sometimes things don’t always go as planned. 

High school basketball commits coming to Penn dream of stepping onto the historic Palestra court with the letters P-E-N-N written across their chests, but sometimes uncontrollable factors get in the way. For Penn men’s basketball sophomore Jelani Williams, this concern is all too real.

Williams, a Washington D.C. native, came to Penn as a highly-touted recruit from Sidwell Friends, who are also called the Quakers. There, he was a four-year letter winner and three-year captain. He had a successful sophomore and junior year — as he received All-Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference honors — but during his senior season, injury troubles hampered his ability to stay on the court. 

Williams tore his anterior cruciate ligament as a senior, which sidelined him for months. He would also miss his freshman season at Penn. After months of rehabbing and getting back in shape, he was ready to step back on the court, only to tear the same ACL right before the beginning of his sophomore year. This caused Williams to spend less time playing the game he loves and more time rehabbing another injury. 

These enduring injuries have not allowed him to step on the court during his college career, which has been difficult for the sophomore. 

“I think it has been hard for him just two years of doing this,” coach Steve Donahue said. “This has been a little hard for him in terms of his input on this team. He has been around; he has learned a lot, but it is hard because he has not been out on the court at all during his college career."

Williams continues to stick with the team and put in the effort each and every day for the overall success of the program. He wants to see his team capture a championship even if it does not mean he is stepping on the court and playing. 

“I think it is a couple of things — especially the seniors this year have been talking about how they want to leave with a championship, so that keeps me engaged with everybody and try to do as much as I can from my perspective on the bench to provide insight,” Williams said.

Credit: Chase Sutton

While it is awful to have the same injury occur twice, Williams has been through the experience once before and knows what the future holds for him. He is putting in more work the second time around because he knows what to expect. Williams understands that the more effort that he puts in during rehabbing the earlier he can step back on the court and get back to playing basketball.

An injury as serious as an ACL tear can sometimes lead to a player's downfall. However, in Williams' case, he has used his injury to foster a closer relationship with junior teammate Ryan Betley, who is rehabbing from a ruptured patellar tendon. 

“We do [physical therapy] together, and we have just been able to talk about our injuries,” Williams said. “[His injury is] similar but a little different so just kinda talking the different ways that we rehab, the things that we have to do to make sure that we don’t get injured again.”

He might not be shooting three-pointers against Villanova or dunking on Princeton players, but Williams finds other ways to contribute to his team's success from the sidelines. Williams is able to give him teammates a different perspective from the sidelines, which can be helpful for them to see a new side of the game.  

His teammates feel that he has been a big help to see the game in a way which they sometimes are unable to in the heat of the moment. Senior Antonio Woods believes that Williams has been an invaluable resource for helping with in-game changes. 

“He has definitely been a help,” Woods said. “There have been times during a timeout, he will see something on the floor and tell me and let me know and make me see that as well. He has been a big help for us being that floor general from the bench.”

Williams is able to take on a leadership role, encouraging his teammates, even while he isn't able to play himself. 

In practices, the sophomore is very limited in what he can do, but he uses the time to encourage his teammates and push them to get better. 

“[He's] just being that extra voice,” Woods said. “There is not so much that he can do because of the injury but you still hear him in practice all the time. Keeping guys engaged, being that extra voice.” 

His teammates, while they have only seen him play in practice — and only for a short time before this summer — know what kind of a player and person he is. 

“He is a resilient guy, he has battled before. It is nothing new to him,” Woods said. “He is battle-tested — just watch out for next year.”

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