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How Niagara’s Marcus Hammond went from recruiting afterthought to team focal point

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Niagara Purple Eagles take on Monmouth Hawks in their home opener

Niagara Purple Eagles guard Marcus Hammond (10) takes a shot while giarded by Monmouth Hawks forward Nikkei Rutty (21) in the first half.

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Greg Paulus hears the same refrain when opposing coaches approach him to talk about Marcus Hammond.

In conversations, or during handshakes after each game, coaches share with Paulus that they purposely key on Hammond, a 6-foot-3 senior guard on the Niagara men’s basketball team, as they formulate their scouting reports on the Purple Eagles.

“The last couple years, he’s been one of the top guys they’ve tried to make work extra hard for, and they’ve tried to build their defensive game plan around him,” Niagara’s third-year coach said.

“He’s a focal point for other teams to try to make it as difficult as possible, and he’s done that, and put himself in that position because of his hard work, his coachability, to embrace and really work on the things he needed to work on," Paulus added. "As a result, he’s been able to elevate his game, from our first year together, in his sophomore year, to today. Being able to see that has been fun.”

Paulus has yet to hear an unfavorable review about Hammond, who leads the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference in scoring (17.1 points per game) as the Purple Eagles (5-7, 0-3) prepare to host Quinnipiac at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Gallagher Center in Lewiston.

Hammond, though, had no idea how his college basketball career would unfold. Or, at one point, if it even would. Niagara was the only Division I program to offer Hammond a scholarship during his senior year at Cardozo High School in Queens. 

“At a point, I was thinking, it might not happen,” Hammond said. “When it did happen, it was wild. I was really excited. It did take me some time to commit, but the fact that I actually received one was huge for me and my family.”

Ron Naclerio, Hammond’s coach at Cardozo, helped facilitate that. Naclerio has coached basketball at Cardozo since 1981, and more than 90 of his players have played college basketball.

Hammond joined Cardozo’s program as a 5-4 freshman, and developed into a 6-1 point guard who averaged 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds his senior year. Naclerio also believed Hammond could play college basketball, but he had to hunt for that opportunity for Hammond.

In the summer of 2017, Naclerio called upon his connection with Niagara president Rev. James J. Maher and his connection with former Niagara coach Chris Casey during the summer of 2017 to inform Niagara’s staff about Hammond.

“They get video of him playing in a fall game against Long Island Lutheran, and they offer him a visit and a scholarship,” Naclerio said. “He came back from that visit and said he liked it.”

Hammond deliberated the scholarship offer from Niagara. But no other scholarship offers came.

Finally, Naclerio gave him some blunt advice.

“A couple days went by and I told him, ‘If you like this place, take that scholarship,’ ” Naclerio said. “I said, ‘Listen, Marcus, you had no scholarships, and now you have one,’ ” Naclerio recalled. “It’s common sense. It’s like going to the prom. If you say ‘Maybe’ to one girl, you’re actually saying you’re looking for something better. And that something better may be right in front of you.’ ”

Hammond committed to the Purple Eagles in February 2018. However, after Hammond’s freshman year, Niagara fired Casey in March 2019.

Hammond didn’t bail on the Purple Eagles, though. He stayed on campus, rather than return home to Queens that summer. He took two classes and trained at the Gallagher Center, whether it was independently or when there were offseason team workouts.

“He voluntarily came back earlier than the rest of the team, just to be around, to work, to be in the gym,” said Paulus, who was an assistant at Niagara that summer. “He wanted to be in the gym and work. He showed, through his actions, that he wanted to continue to take steps forward, from who he was to where he wanted to get to.”

Hammond also learned how valuable his college basketball experience has become. He’s had three head coaches since the fall of 2018, and had his sophomore season halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a day after Hammond scored 20 points in Niagara’s win against Marist in the first round of the MAAC Tournament in March 2020.

“I got some time to reflect with my family, for a little while, but then after that, I got back up and started working even harder,” Hammond said. “It was very unexpected. No one thought something like that would happen. It was an eye-opener for everybody. You’ve got to take every opportunity and work hard.”

Hammond averaged 12.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and three assists in 20 games last season as the Purple Eagles reached the MAAC Tournament semifinals. This season, Paulus has watched how Hammond has embraced the roles of being a focal point on the court and being a team leader.

“I’ve learned that I can battle adversity,” Hammond said. “That all of us can battle adversity. We’ve been through a lot, and it taught us that certain things, you just can’t take (those) for granted. You never know when your last game may be. You never know when things may shut down, so with that being said, each practice, each game, you’ve got to act like it’s your last.”

During Hammond's freshman season, Naclerio went to a Niagara-Iona game in New Rochelle and watched as his former player scored 18 points on 7 of 9 shooting in a 79-76 loss.

“I called so many schools about Marcus, 40 to 50 schools, and so many of them totally regret it,” Naclerio said. “Now, I go to a game to see him at Iona, and Marcus has an unbelievable game.

“After the game, Iona fans are saying, ‘Why isn’t he at Iona?’ I said, ‘The truth? Nobody wanted him.’ ”

Now, Naclerio said he still gets calls from college coaches, asking about Hammond.

“Every coach that calls me says, ‘If Marcus puts his name in the transfer portal, we’re interested,’ ” Naclerio said.

Naclerio won’t make any decisions on behalf of his former player. Hammond, instead, aims to make the most of his fourth season at Niagara.

“We want to keep getting better here,” Hammond said. “And now, we want to win. That’s what we’re going to keep striving for, and we’re going to get on the right track.”

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College/high school sports enterprise reporter

I'm a college/high school sports enterprise reporter at The Buffalo News. I've worked in sports journalism since 1997 and I have covered everything from college football to the Stanley Cup playoffs, high school sports and the NCAA Tournament.

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