Scott grew up in Philadelphia, raised by a single mom and the youngest of nine siblings. While his mom worked long days, Scott would hang around the house and watch TV. His early years didn’t revolve around sports. He didn’t idolize all the pros his city has produced. He never dreamed of basketball turning into his promising path forward, that he’d become one of Maryland’s best players with perhaps an NBA future. As a kid in his circumstances, Scott said, “you’re not expecting too many things good to happen.”
Not long after Scott started playing AAU basketball, his fellow 10-year-old teammates gave him a hard time for not recognizing a picture of Michael Jordan. One of his former coaches jokes that Scott still probably can’t name 15 NBA players. Scott wasn’t very skilled. But he enjoyed the sport, so those around him now had a reward to dangle in front of him. If he acted up at school or his grades slipped, he’d have to watch practices and games, rather than participate.
“That burns him up more than anything else,” said Howard Hudson, Scott’s longtime AAU coach, because Scott — both then and now — cannot sit still and always wants a ball in his hands.
Hudson saw immediate progress. Scott’s mom, Sandra Campbell, said her son made a “360 turn” at school. But Scott still felt stuck in that angry mind-set through much of middle school. He continued progressing as a player, with his skill set becoming obvious in eighth grade and others noticing his potential. By then, he started to feel differently, too.
“It all changed,” Scott said. And everyone around him says it changed because of basketball.
The sport helped Scott see the world — and his future — with a wider lens. He made friends and traveled around the country to play at high-level tournaments, visiting new places while standing out on the court. Scott had an outlet for his energy. Basketball had given him something positive.
“I just realized that I was getting better,” Scott said, “and that I could make something of this.”
In late December, the Terrapins had yet to beat a major-conference opponent. The staff needed to solve the season’s most pressing question: How can a team survive the Big Ten schedule without a dominant big man in the post? During the trip to Wisconsin, Scott offered a clear answer. At 6-foot-7, the sophomore who played point guard for a year in high school, battled veteran frontcourt players with a significant size advantage. Facing the Badgers, ranked No. 6 at the time, Maryland used that smaller lineup more often than it had in any previous games.
When the Terps led by three points with about a minute to go, Scott drove into the paint, through three Wisconsin defenders, and he leaped above them all for a highlight-worthy dunk. Scott had played well late in the upset win, scoring 10 points during the second half. When asked afterward where this team would be without Scott, Coach Mark Turgeon said: “I don’t know, man.”
The Terps have become reliant on those small lineups. It’s their best group of players, who can fly around on defense and are difficult to guard. Scott didn’t come to Maryland to play center, Turgeon said, but he hasn’t complained. Even though he’s been inconsistent heading into the Big Ten tournament, Scott has taken a massive step from his freshman season. He leads the Terps in three-point shooting (44 percent) and is third in scoring (11.2 points per game). His teammates say he’s a smart player and mentally tough.
“I’d go to war with Donta any day, personally,” senior Darryl Morsell said. “If I’ve ever got to step on to a basketball court and Donta is somebody I could pick up, I’m definitely doing it.”
Scott calls himself a thinker and an observer. Sometimes, when discussing the Terps’ next game or a recent performance, he slips into thoughts that stray from basketball, hinting at larger ideas. A couple days after that Wisconsin road game, while sharing his mentality when facing those bigger forwards, Scott said: “Just fight. That’s all I’ve ever been doing my whole life — fighting, fighting, fighting.”
Explaining what forged that mind-set, Scott begins when he was 3 years old. While at home with his siblings, he wanted to visit friends nearby. As he ran across the street, he was hit by a car. Scott only remembers flashing lights, but his mom said her son suffered a head injury and needed teeth surgically removed. “They rushed me to the hospital,” Scott said. “And just been fighting ever since.”
Scott’s mom worked long hours as a medical assistant through Scott’s childhood, and he doesn’t have much of a relationship with his dad. (Three of his eight siblings are on his dad’s side.) Scott noticed how hard his mom worked to provide for her children, and that motivates him. Dwayne Campbell, now Scott’s stepdad, became involved when Scott was about 10. Sandra’s face “lights up” when anyone mentions her son, her husband said. Scott is the first of his siblings to attend a four-year college, and he thinks daily about how his future in basketball could change their lives.
“I think about it, not just for my family but for myself,” Scott said. “This is my dream that I want to live and make something of it.”
When Scott joined Hudson’s AAU team, he wore Nike boots and his coach stopped by a discount sneaker store so the 10-year-old would have proper basketball shoes. As far as his skill level on the court, “oh, he was horrible,” Hudson quickly says. Early on, Hudson remembers Scott checking in to a game and asking his coach if he should play offense or defense. Scott said he tried to score on the wrong basket. But he also wanted to learn.
“This kid was never the chosen one,” said Delgreco Wilson, an academic adviser and mentor for Scott since seventh grade. “We have those kids. … Donta was never that guy. He was always the other guy.”
Scott’s family moved to Norristown, a Philadelphia suburb, not long after he started playing organized basketball. He’d get to practice on his own by way of a 45-minute train ride into the city. Scott then waited inside a Family Dollar, where one of his coaches met him.
During eighth grade, around the time when Scott refocused his mind-set, he garnered attention for his development and potential. At Imhotep Charter, Scott started on three state title-winning teams. Imhotep snapped Montverde Academy’s 55-game home winning streak in a tournament final. Scott, a sophomore, was the game MVP.
As Scott excelled in basketball, “he became somebody,” Wilson said.
Scott desperately wanted to please his coaches, and he wasn’t fixated on scoring. He understood all the ways he could affect a game — rebounding, passing, toughness. He grew up telling people he enjoyed defense, and in high school, he loved blocking shots. The feeling of stopping somebody else from scoring, especially if that player had been trash-talking, gives him pride. Ultimately, it comes down to winning.
When Maryland started the season with a difficult stretch — only four wins in 13 conference games — Scott seemed miserable on the phone afterward, his high school coach, Andre Noble, said. Scott can be a bit pouty because it bothers him so much. During the five-game winning streak, when a spot in the NCAA tournament began to solidify, he was “ultra-excited,” Noble said, even though Scott didn’t always have his best individual games.
Family members and other guests attended the Terrapins’ regular season finale Sunday, the first time they’ve been allowed inside Xfinity Center since last year. After the game, a deflating loss, Scott was predictably dejected. Asked about the locker room environment after the game, he said: “Couldn’t explain it to you. It’s a loss. It just feels like a loss.” That hasn’t changed.
But on the drive home to Philadelphia that night, Scott’s mom and his longtime AAU coach talked about how different Scott used to be, when he was a troublemaking kid in elementary school. Now he’s keeping up with his college classes, and his life is structured through basketball.
During AAU tournaments, when coaches begged their players to sit between games, Scott would find a basketball and drift onto any court, even if it was only empty because of a timeout. When Noble drove him home from high school practices and needed to finish work before they left, he’d find Scott playing around with a ball, dripping sweat, while he waited. It always seemed pure, Noble said, because Scott still plays basketball like he’s 12 years old. He still plays like someone who realized what he could become after finding a spark of joy.