In his junior season at Philadelphia’s Imhotep Institute Charter High School, Fatts Russell was quickly struck by the new kid. His coaches told him about a young, highly touted player, but he didn’t expect to see a 6-foot-6 ninth grader awkwardly amble into the gym.
That new kid was Donta Scott.
But once they stepped on the court, any reservations about Scott’s abilities were dashed.
“Once he … started playing, you could just see the talent just ooze out of him,” Russell said. “You just knew he was going to be something one day.”
Six years after that first encounter, they’re sharing the floor once more. Russell transferred to Maryland in April, joining forces with Scott for his final college basketball season — and he has a group of familiar faces to ease the transition.
Russell played against Hakim Hart and Eric Ayala in high school and on the AAU circuit. Those four players are part of a growing corps of Philadelphia-area talent that’s seeking out coach Mark Turgeon’s squad at the next level.
This burgeoning pipeline isn’t just paying dividends in College Park — it’s doing the same in the City of Brotherly Love.
“All the young players kind of follow the older guys from Philly,” Russell said. “They see us playing at Maryland, hopefully they kind of want to follow in our footsteps.”
But it’s not just the success of Philadelphia-area talent that’s drawing attention to the Terps — it’s the style.
Maryland plays a physical, grinding, defense-focused game that helped it allow the third-fewest points per contest in the Big Ten last season. Its players are scrappy and hardworking — and Philadelphia basketball is no different.
To push through the often cutthroat talent and rise to the top, players have to be tough, strong-minded and self-confident. They play a rough-and-tumble game, a trait Imhotep Charter assistant coach Tahar Sutton attributes to the upbringing many of his players have.
“Philadelphia is a rough city. Most inner cities are rough, so the basketball is played that way,” Sutton, who’s also Russell’s father, said. “Most Philly guys, especially when they go other places outside of Philly, feel really confident, even if they’re not the best players … that they’ll have success other places because it’s so tough to play here.”
It’s a similar basketball culture to another city Turgeon has turned into a recruiting hotbed: Baltimore.
“Coach Turgeon’s a tough coach, Maryland plays tough, and … they have that grittiness and heart about them, and that’s just kind of how Philly basketball and Baltimore basketball is,” Russell said.
Basketball has always been a part of Russell’s life. Most of his family played the sport, and he gravitated toward it after watching his brother compete in local leagues. After stints in recreation leagues and a small AAU club, Russell joined Team Final, an elite program counting Cam Reddish, Dion Waiters and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as some of its alumni.
As his talent grew, he came to Imhotep Charter for high school, a highly regarded program he’d aspired to join for years. His father, Sutton, was an assistant coach there, and Russell’s skills helped him become a four-year player for the Panthers.
Though an aggressive scorer throughout high school, Russell began to morph into an all-around player by the end of his sophomore year. In the 2015 Philadelphia Public League championship against heavily-favored Constitution High School, Russell dropped 19 points en route to a title game MVP.
But with his team trailing in the waning seconds, Russell passed up a shot and found DeAnte Robinson for the go-ahead bucket. The assist surprised his coaches, who were used to Russell making the big play himself.
“Everybody thought he was going to take the shot,” Sutton said. “That was a big 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 got on the Imhotep Charter coaches’ radar when he was in seventh grade. At the All City Classic tournament, assistant coach Stan Williams noticed a tall, boyish-faced kid walking around with a basketball in his hand. And any chance he got, he would pull out a move and cross over passersby.
“It’s like he was having his own game in his mind off the court,” Williams said.
He then got to know Scott a year later on the AAU circuit. Before long, Scott was a four-year starter at Imhotep Charter.
Scott came to the team as an energetic, highly athletic player. Though his raw talent carried him his freshman season, he did not always show off the aggression needed to elevate his game. That’s where Russell helped.
“His encouragement in those [games] that we had to play, and his leadership in getting more out of Donta and being confident in Donta was, I think, really helpful,” Imhotep Charter head coach Andre Noble said. “Donta really matured from being a freshman that kind of was figuring it out to being a sophomore that was a really, really good basketball player.”
And it paid off.
The 2016-17 campaign was one of Imhotep Charter’s best in school history. The Panthers went 31-2 and won the Pennsylvania Class AAAA championship, finishing the season ranked No. 3 nationally by MaxPreps.
Russell and “Hot Scott,” as Sutton nicknamed him, became a dynamic duo. The two were alley-oop partners, finding each other soaring through the air to throw down vicious dunks over unsuspecting opponents.
Scott developed an inside game, cutting to the hoop and scooping up rebounds for gritty points. Russell’s outside presence hit its zenith as he became Imhotep Charter’s all-time leader in points, assists and steals. He capped his high school career with a team-high 25 points in a state title win over Strong Vincent.
“They didn’t play together their whole life, but you would’ve thought … they played alongside each other for a while at that point,” Williams said.
Russell departed for Rhode Island after that season, where he was a three-year starter and only missed three games in his time with the Rams. Scott continued to excel at Imhotep, winning two more state championships before arriving in College Park. Although he did not have Russell to team with for highlight-reel plays, Scott quickly found another Philadelphia connection.
Hart joined the Terps at the same time as Scott, and the two AAU teammates continued their growth at Maryland. Though Scott quickly found a role in the starting lineup, Hart had to work his way up after an inconsistent freshman season.
Through offseason improvements and a depleted roster, Hart earned a leading role for Turgeon. By the end of their sophomore seasons, both Hart and Scott were starting every game — and they often found each other in key moments.
In the second half of a pivotal late-February matchup with Michigan State, the Spartans had closed the Terps’ lead to single digits after a hot start faded. Scott tried to drive the lane but found his path blocked.
He saw Hart flash behind him and kicked it out to his AAU teammate, who swished a 3-pointer to send Maryland back up double digits. On the next possession, Hart returned the favor with a difficult cross-court pass to an open Scott, who hit a 3-pointer of his own to bury Michigan State.
“I think it’s pretty special for both of us. It’s like we’re playing AAU back when we played [in Philly],” Hart said after the win over the Spartans.
And now, Russell is joining his brethren. The decision to play out his final season with the Terps partially came down to his comfort level in knowing the Philadelphia-area guys — Hart, Scott and Ayala from nearby Wilmington, Delaware.
He wants to experience that success and connection he had with Scott one more time. His blend of leadership, skill and toughness has him poised to start immediately. And with a deeper supporting cast, Maryland could go far.
“They could be one of the best teams in the country,” Noble said. “I have no worries about whether [Fatts] is going to be good enough. I already know that he is.”
But even if the upcoming season doesn’t end with another trophy hoisted above his head, Russell’s short stay with the Terps could pay dividends for Turgeon. Maryland is becoming an attractive option for Philadelphia-area basketball recruits due to its history and the success of players such as Scott, Hart and Ayala.
Russell could soon add to that legacy, and with it, strengthen a new recruiting pipeline for years to come.
“It’s gonna be fun,” Russell said.