“So it was just a lot of stuff to battle during the year,” said Russell, who missed only two games.
He still averaged 14.7 points, again the highest mark on his team, but he didn’t deliver the same standout season that he did as a junior. The NCAA had announced it would grant eligibility relief to all players whose seasons were affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but Russell hadn’t seriously considered taking advantage of playing an extra year of college basketball. After dealing with those injuries and talking with his family, though, Russell decided he wanted to play a fifth and final season, so he entered the transfer portal and began searching for the right destination.
Maryland desperately needed a true point guard after navigating the entire 2020-21 season without one. The departure of Anthony Cowan Jr., a four-year starter, left a void that the Terrapins’ staff couldn’t fill. Russell, a 5-foot-11 Philadelphia native with four years of experience, offered a solution, and in turn Maryland gave Russell a place where he could attempt to finish his college career on a high note.
“What I wanted was to come in and have a chance to compete for a Final Four, Elite Eight, national championship type of team,” Russell said. “I looked at all my options, and I just felt like I was most comfortable with Maryland, and I felt like at Maryland we would have the best chance.”
After deciding to transfer, Russell had plenty of suitors before he chose the Terps over Texas and Auburn. Russell said Coach Mark Turgeon didn’t guarantee him a top role at Maryland. But given the Terps’ need for a point guard, Russell seems in line to start right away. In four years at Rhode Island, he had 1,594 points, 411 assists and a school-record 213 steals.
“I look at my role as more of a leader and a facilitator and just picking my spots,” Russell said, adding that with this Maryland team, he will be surrounded by “so many weapons out on the court.”
Russell announced his decision on the same day that Georgetown center Qudus Wahab committed to Maryland, filling another key void for the Terps. Junior guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala, the team’s top scorers, have declared for the NBA draft while maintaining their college eligibility, so both could return. Beyond them, guard Hakim Hart and forwards Donta Scott and Jairus Hamilton can help fill out the rotation for a deep and experienced squad.
“They told me I have a chance to come in and be a part of a really good team,” Russell said. “I saw that the Georgetown big, Q, committed, and that definitely interested me. Once I heard that and I saw the team, I just wanted to be a part of a really good team. That was the pitch, to be honest.”
Russell, who was recruited by Turgeon and assistant coach Matt Brady, felt reassured by how Maryland’s staff hopes to help him develop. Russell wants to get stronger and become more consistent with his jumper. When he asked Maryland’s coaches questions during the brief recruiting process, Russell said, their answers were honest and lined up with what he had hoped to hear.
Russell already had ties to the Terps. He played two high school seasons with Scott at Imhotep Charter. He didn’t play with Hart in high school or AAU ball, but they knew each other from the Philadelphia basketball scene. And Ayala grew up in nearby Wilmington, Del., so he has played with and against Russell. When Russell decided to transfer, he talked with Scott about the Terps.
“He was telling me it’s a great place and he would love to play with me again,” Russell said. “He’s like my brother. Coming out of Imhotep, it’s like a brotherhood. Me and him became real close throughout those two years.”
Russell’s family will be able to attend games at Xfinity Center with a much shorter trip (about two hours) than was needed for home games at Rhode Island, which required a five-hour drive through New York traffic. Maryland got a glimpse of Russell during a nonconference game in November 2019.
Before that 73-55 Maryland win, Turgeon joked, “Well, they need to change his name to Fast, not Fatts.” (Russell’s given name is Daron, but his mother started to call him Fatts because, he said, “I was a pretty chubby baby, and it kind of stuck with me.”) Turgeon continued: “He’s fearless. And then he makes big shots. He’s one of those kids you look and you watch games from [the previous season]: Whenever the game was on the line, he’d make big shots.”
Russell scored just five points against that talented Terps team, which went on to win a share of the Big Ten regular season title, but he averaged 24.3 in the Rams’ next seven games. He finished that season at 18.8 points, 4.6 assists and 2.9 steals per game. In his senior year, his production fell off a bit as he dealt with all of those injuries, but as graduation approaches next month, Russell has another chance at a new school and with a talented collection of teammates surrounding him.
“You kind of approach it as a business type of move,” he said. “Just come in and everything’s business. Work as hard as you can. Try to do everything correct and wind up hopefully winning and going out on top.”
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