During his junior season at Imhotep Institute Charter High School in Philadelphia, Fatts Russell was quickly struck by the new kid. His coaches told him about a much-vaunted young player, but he didn’t expect a 6-foot-6 ninth grader awkwardly strolling through the gym.
This new kid was Donta Scott.
But once they stepped onto the pitch, all reservations about Scott’s abilities were dashed.
âOnce heâ¦ started playing, you could just see the talent oozing out of him,â said Russell. âYou just knew it was going to be something someday.
Six years after this first meeting, they share the word again. Russell moved to Maryland in April, teaming up with Scott for his final season of college basketball – and he has a bunch of familiar faces to ease the transition.
Russell played against Hakim Hart and Eric Ayala in high school and on the AAU Tour. These four players are part of a growing body of Philadelphia-area talent looking for Coach Mark Turgeon’s team to the next level.
This booming pipeline isn’t just paying dividends in College Park – it’s doing the same in the town of Brotherly Love.
âAll the young players are sort of following the older guys in Philly,â said Russell. “They see us playing in Maryland, hopefully they want to follow in our footsteps.”
But it’s not just the success of Philadelphia-area talent that draws attention to the Terps – it’s the style.
Maryland is playing a physical, crusher, and defense-focused game that saw them give up the third fewest points per fight in the Big Ten last season. Its players are disjointed and hardworking – and Philadelphia basketball is no different.
To fend off the often fierce talent and reach the top, players need to be tough, strong-minded, and self-confident. They play a tough game, a trait Imhotep Charter assistant coach Tahar Sutton attributes to the education of many of his players.
âPhiladelphia is a difficult city. Most downtown areas are tough so basketball is played that way, âsaid Sutton, who is also Russell’s father. âMost of the guys in Philly, especially when they go elsewhere outside of Philly, feel really confident even though they’re not the best playersâ¦ that they’ll be successful elsewhere because it’s so hard to play here. .
It’s a basketball culture similar to that of another town that Turgeon has become a recruiting hotbed: Baltimore.
“Coach Turgeon is a tough coach, Maryland is playing hard, andâ¦ they’ve got that gravity and that heart about them, and it’s kind of like Philly basketball and Baltimore basketball,” Russell said.
Basketball has always been a part of Russell’s life. Most of his family played the sport and he turned to him after seeing his brother compete in the local leagues. After stints in recreational leagues and a small AAU club, Russell joined Team Final, an elite program that counts Cam Reddish, Dion Waiters and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist among its alumni.
As his talent grew, he came to Imhotep Charter for high school, a highly regarded program he had aspired to for years. His father, Sutton, was an assistant coach there, and Russell’s skills helped him grow into a four-year-old for the Panthers.
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Although an aggressive scorer throughout high school, Russell began to transform into a versatile player at the end of his sophomore year. In the 2015 Philadelphia Public League Championship against the popular Constitution High School, Russell lost 19 points en route to an MVP of the title game.
But with his team trailing in the dying seconds, Russell missed a shot and found DeAnte Robinson for the go-ahead bucket. The aide surprised his coaches, used to Russell playing the big game himself.
âEveryone thought he was going to take the picture,â Sutton said. “It was a great moment for him because he showed a certain level of growth and maturity.”
After that, Russell became a leader. And when Scott came to Imhotep, Russell had his mentee.
Scott first appeared on Imhotep Charter coaching radar when he was in seventh grade. During the All City Classic tournament, assistant coach Stan Williams noticed a large boy-faced child walking around with a basketball in his hand. And every chance he had, he would make a move and walk through passers-by.
âIt’s like he’s got his own game in mind off the field,â said Williams.
He then met Scott a year later on the AAU Tour. Before long, Scott was a four-year starter at Imhotep Charter.
Scott came to the team as an energetic and very athletic player. Although his raw talent carried him his first season, he didn’t always show the aggressiveness needed to elevate his game. This is where Russell helped.
“His encouragement in these [games] that we needed to play, and his leadership in getting the most out of Donta and having confidence in Donta was, I think, really helpful, âsaid Imhotep Charter head coach Andre Noble. âDonta really matured from being a freshman, which sort of made him into a sophomore who was a very, very good basketball player.
And it paid off.
The 2016-17 campaign was one of the best in the school history of the Imhotep charter. The Panthers went 31-2 and won the Pennsylvania Class AAAA Championship, finishing the season ranked N Â° 3 at national level by MaxPreps.
Russell and “Hot Scott”, as Sutton called them, have become a dynamic duo. The two were alley partners, finding themselves flying through the air to throw vicious dunks at unsuspecting opponents.
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Scott developed an inside game, cutting right through to the hoop and picking up rebounds for grainy points. Russell’s outside presence peaked when he became Imhotep Charter’s all-time leader in points, assists and steals. He capped his high school career with a team record 25 points in a state title win over Strong Vincent.
âThey haven’t played together their entire lives, but you would have thoughtâ¦ that they played side-to-side for a while at that point,â Williams said.
Russell moved to Rhode Island after that season, where he had been a starter for three years and missed just three games in his time with the Rams. Scott continued to excel at Imhotep, winning two more state championships before arriving at College Park. While he didn’t have Russell to team up with for the Highlight Games, Scott quickly found another connection in Philadelphia.
Hart joined the Terps at the same time as Scott, and the two AAU teammates continued to grow in Maryland. Although Scott quickly found a role in the starting lineup, Hart had to make his way after an inconsistent freshman season.
Thanks to off-season improvements and an exhausted roster, Hart won a leading role for Turgeon. By the end of their second season, Hart and Scott were starting all games – and they often reunited in key moments.
In the second half of a decisive game at the end of February with Michigan State, the Spartans had closed the Terps single-digit lead after a hot start faded. Scott tried to drive the track but found his way blocked.
He saw Hart flash behind him and sent him back to his AAU teammate, who threw a 3 point to send Maryland back in double digits. On the next possession, Hart returned the favor with a difficult cross pass to an open Scott, who hit a 3 run of his own to bury Michigan State.
âI think it’s pretty special for both of us. It’s like we play AAU when we play [in Philly]Hart said after the victory over the Spartans.
And now Russell is join his brothers. Part of the decision to play his final season with the Terps was down to his comfort level in knowing the guys from the Philadelphia area – Hart, Scott and Ayala from Wilmington, Delaware.
He wants to experience that success and that connection with Scott all over again. His blend of leadership, skill and tenacity got him started immediately. And with a deeper supporting cast, Maryland could go a long way.
âThey could be one of the best teams in the country,â Noble said. “I don’t care whether [Fatts] is going to be pretty good. I already know he is.
But even if the coming season doesn’t end with another trophy hoisted over his head, Russell’s short stint with the Terps could pay off for Turgeon. Maryland is becoming an attractive option for Philadelphia-area basketball rookies due to its history and the success of players such as Scott, Hart and Ayala.
Russell may soon add to that legacy and, with it, strengthen a new recruiting pipeline for years to come.
âIt’s going to be fun,â Russell said.