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Donta Scott is the key piece to Maryland men’s basketball’s puzzle

Scott is tied for the longest-tenured Terp, and the leader of this Maryland group.

Julio Cortez / AP

Donta Scott, who is entering his fourth season with Maryland men’s basketball, has seen plenty of talent and leadership exit College Park. From Aaron Wiggins to Jalen Smith to Darryl Morsell to Eric Ayala and even an entire coaching staff, Scott has seen Terp greats come and go.

Now, with the Kevin Willard era here, it’s Scott’s turn to take the reigns of this iteration of Maryland basketball as the longest-tenured Terp — along with Hakim Hart — and the most complete player on the roster.

Willard’s first team at Maryland has little to no expectations, a rarity for a proud program usually filled with expectation in the preseason. But that doesn't mean Maryland can’t surprise some people in the deepest conference in the country.

If that's going to happen it won’t be because of the backcourt transfers in Jahmir Young and Don Carey, and it won’t be because of the promising prospect that is Julian Reese, who Maryland fans hope takes a step forward in his sophomore season. While they will have to play a crucial role in Maryland’s success, if Maryland is going to shock the conference it will be on the shoulders of Donta Scott.

The road to Donta Scott becoming a leader at Maryland has been a windy one.

In the last few years, Maryland has experienced a Big Ten regular-season title, a COVID shutdown, NIL entering the fray, a mid-season coaching change that led to the program’s worst season in nearly three decades and a complete changeover in the coaching staff, along with countless transfers that have entered and exited the program. An ordinary three years in college basketball, right?

But the one constant through those years is Scott and his longtime friend Hart, who have been teammates going back to their AAU days in Philadelphia.

Scott started to make his mark as a freshman, starting over 20 games and establishing himself as a stretch forward that could rebound and shoot from the outside.

Scott’s breakout year was his sophomore campaign that catapulted him to becoming a legitimate name on the college basketball scene. Due to a poorly constructed roster, Scott was forced to play out of position for large stretches of that season, often matching up against opposing centers.

Offensively, it worked to his advantage as Scott emerged as a versatile three-level scorer. He showcased his ability to score on the low block, in the mid-post with his strength and creative footwork, and as a 3-point threat off the dribble and on the catch.

Scott doubled his scoring average to 11 points per game, while grabbing six rebounds a game and dishing out two assists. His most impressive metric was his 44% mark from three on 3.6 attempts per game.

Entering his junior season, NBA buzz started to circulate around Scott and many thought he was poised for a breakout year as a focal point of the offense. That’s not exactly how things panned out.

Instead, Scott regressed. While he increased his scoring average by one point, his field goal percentage dipped with three more attempts per game, and his 3-point percentage dropped to 29%. His assist numbers also took a hit.

The circumstances surrounding last season were difficult, but Scott’s production was not up to his par. His shot selection, playmaking and overall decision-making was not good. Scott certainly showed flashes, but he was rarely consistent for 40 minutes.

Scott was significantly more effective near the rim, as most players with his size and athleticism are, but he often settled for outside shots. Scott scored on 62.7% of his possessions at the rim last season, 77.8% of his possessions where he shot a runner, and 63.6% when he attempted a hook shot, according to Synergy.

Scott, however, struggled with shots off the dribble, scoring on just 20% of possessions that resulted in a dribble jumper. On the catch, Scott scored on 32.2% of his possessions.

This season is a fresh start for Scott in the same place he’s called home since he left Philadelphia and traveled south down I-95.

When Willard was hired in March, he prioritized keeping the core of the roster intact — which of course included Scott — and signing complementary transfers through the portal. There was never a doubt Scott was going to stick around and finish his college career in College Park.

“I still wanted to be a Terp,” Scott said. “Just because our coach left doesn’t mean our fans left and our fan base completely gave up on us. They’re still here, and that's what I really came to this school for.”

Once Willard secured Scott’s commitment to stay, the focus shifted to transforming him into a player that garners NBA attention.

“My main focus with him was that he has a game that can play in the NBA, he did not have a body that can play in the NBA,” Willard said. “Our total focus this offseason was to get his body to a place where he can play 35 minutes, and not just play 35 minutes but play 35 effective minutes.”

Scott lost close to 30 pounds and trimmed his body fat by 7%, according to Willard. A slim Scott is better for the team, and his future. Scott was visibly out of shape at points last season and it showed on the defensive end, especially on the perimeter.

Scott ranked in the 10th percentile in points per possession of all Division I players and was rated as poor, according to Synergy. Defending jump shots, Scott ranked in the 7th percentile.

Willard has made it known he plans to play with pace this season, which means getting up a lot of shots and pressing. An in-shape Scott will be essential to this plan, and will likely create more scoring opportunities for him.

“At the weight I was at, it wasn’t easy to carry, so I decided that it would be best for my team and for me personally to lose that weight,” Scott said. “It took a lot of discipline and hard work.”

Scott’s work ethic has set a good example for the rest of the group. He leads by example while also being the most vocal guy on the floor. In a year that’s sure to be frustrating and difficult at times, Scott’s leadership will be paramount.

According to Carey, Scott’s message to the team has been to not take any day for granted.

“He's been an unbelievable leader,” Willard said. “I’m talking about lights-out and it started from my first meeting with him.”

It’s now up to Willard to put Scott in the best positions to succeed. Running sets for him to get near the rim in isolations on the low block and mid-post, using Scott as a screener in the pick-and-roll and creating transition threes as the trailer are all ways that can get Scott back to an efficient 3-point threat and a dangerous scorer.

Maybe Willard and Scott will be a perfect match. After all, Willard did recruit Scott to Seton Hall out of high school before he ultimately chose Maryland. In year one for Willard and year four for Scott, both will have to rely on each other to steer the ship in the right direction.