Against No. 19 Kentucky on Sunday, graduate guard Jaelin Llewellyn flashed his athleticism and playmaking abilities and the impact those can provide. As he facilitated strong ball movement and kept defenders on their toes with his driving threat, it seemed like a picture of what could be.
Now, it’s a picture of what could have been.
Against the Wildcats, Llewellyn sustained a knee injury midway through the second half and dropped to the floor, clearly in pain. Since returning from London, it has been diagnosed as a season-ending ACL injury.
“Jaelin, it’s tough to see him go down in the game,” Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington said Wednesday. “When I saw him yesterday, he was in great spirits. We’re just gonna continue to rally around him.”
Llewellyn, who transferred from Princeton, provided significant value to the Wolverines. Not only did he serve as Michigan’s primary ball handler, but he also offered experience and maturity to a young team. Although he shied away from making big plays at times, Llewellyn also occasionally showed flashes of the bigger impact he could have on the floor.
On Sunday, he did that right out of the gates. On paper, his 2-for-8 line suggests that he didn’t play all that well, but much of his effort didn’t show up on the stat sheet. In the back-and-forth battle, he brought more intensity and aggression than in previous games, and showed maturity on defense while directing the Wolverines’ offense. In doing so, he showed what role he could have played for Michigan as it seeks consistency heading into conference play.
But now, with Llewellyn out for the season, the Wolverines are forced to look elsewhere to fill the void he left — both as a starting point guard and as an on-court leader.
And unfortunately for Michigan, there’s little time to adjust. On Thursday, the Wolverines will face their first Big Ten opponent, Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have a strong point guard in junior Ta’Lon Cooper, and Michigan will face a test as it finds someone to match up with him.
In response the Wolverines will likely call on freshman guard Dug McDaniel.
“(Dug has) been a great spark plug for us off the bench,” Washington said. “He’s been tremendous in terms of his willingness to learn. He’s a great competitive kid, able to change the pace of the game with his speed and his quickness, and we’re confident that if his role needs to increase that we’ll bring him along like we have every other guy.”
With Llewellyn’s diagnosis now known, it’s no longer a question of if McDaniel’s role will increase — it’s a question of by how much.
McDaniel — who played the remaining minutes after Llewellyn’s departure Sunday — has flashed potential in his limited playing time, and now has an opportunity to show what he can do in a larger sample size.
But the fallout of Llewellyn’s injury extends beyond merely filling his starting spot.
In addition to McDaniel taking on a bigger role, the Wolverines around him will need to step up as well. Freshman wing Jett Howard and sophomore guard Kobe Bufkin may both be called upon to take on greater leadership roles. Although both are underclassmen, Howard’s early-season success and Bufkin’s second year strides position them to take the next step as leaders.
“Different guys certainly will have to step up and assume some different roles,” Washington said. “… We challenge our guys every game. Everybody’s accountable to the scouting report, everyone’s supposed to be locked in to what we’re doing so that if and when your name gets called, you can hit the ground running. So those that really embrace that will have the opportunity to do so.”
At the moment, it’s unclear what these changes will look like in action. Whether Michigan’s depth can rise to the occasion and the team can fill the new void remains unknown.
But with the loss of Llewellyn, it will soon come to light.