Marcus Hammond had reason to be optimistic heading into his sophomore season.
As a freshman, he finished sixth in minutes on a Niagara team full of upperclassmen. He showed a steady floor game and a spectacular shooting touch, posting 1.72 assists per turnover and while making more 3-pointers than he missed. His 52.2% clip from deep would've shattered the Purple Eagles' single-season record had he put up enough attempts to qualify.
Hammond also knew he had an opportunity in front of him. NU lost four of its top five players in minutes played to graduation or transfer. It had a new head coach, and then another new head coach, which meant a fresh start for everyone.
So Hammond set an attainable goal: make an All-Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference team at the end of the season.
Much like his team, Hammond blew through all expectations. He averaged 14.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists — 16.2, 5.4 and 2.7 in MAAC play — and was named first team All-MAAC, earning recognition from the coaches as one of the top six players in the conference.
"I just worked the whole summer," Hammond said this week on a phone call from his home in Queens, where he's riding out the COVID-19 outbreak. "I stayed the extra session up at Niagara just to keep working on my game.
"I knew it was going to keep happening for myself, but I'm not sure everybody else thought this was going to happen."
Hammond played over 11 minutes more per game as a sophomore and took over three times as many field goals. He started all 32 games, and while his 3-point percentage fell to 42.5, it will still go down as tied for fifth all-time in Niagara's record book.
At this rate, Hammond has a great shot as going down as the best marksman in NU history.
"I knew my shot was always going to be there," Hammond said. "The only thing I had to worry about was the physicality, getting to the basket and stuff like that.
"I was always able to shoot. It came from a lot of work though. When I was younger I used to pass a lot. I didn't really shoot that much. When I got older, I had to shoot to keep the defense honest. I got confident with a lot of work with my dad."
The Purple Eagles went just 2-9 in non-conference play, losing the first five games of the season and dropping their final four before their MAAC opener. But they found their footing in the conference, opening 3-2 and sitting in a tie for first through five games. Hammond's first buzzer-beater of the season, Jan. 17 against Rider at the Gallagher Center, helped NU win three straight games by a combined four points.
By the end of the season, Hammond was clearly Niagara's go-to scorer. Opposing teams did what they could to take the ball out of his hands, and when he did have it, he drew coverage from the best available defender.
Feb. 29, Iona threw 6-foot-9 senior Tajuan Agee at Hammond, who responded with his second home buzzer-beater, sending the game to overtime and leading to a key win for Niagara in the MAAC standings. In his next two games, Hammond was followed around by Siena's Jalen Pickett and Canisius' Malik Johnson, maybe the two best on-ball defenders in the conference.
Hammond combined for just 17 points on 5-of-23 shooting (21.7%) in those games, losses that knocked Niagara out of a first-round bye in the MAAC tournament.
It's a process, going from steady secondary piece to relied-upon scorer. And those are the matchups Hammond will remember while training this summer.
"When the best defenders on their team are guarding you, it shows you what you need to work on," he said. "When you're a a good defender, you kind of expose the offensive player. Going against those guys, I've seen what I need to work on this summer."
That list includes tightening up his dribble, working on scoring moves and adding to his slender 6-2, 160-pound frame. Hammond said he wants to be able to score "at all three levels" next season and improve his passing with his off hand.
Another year under Greg Paulus, training for a familiar system and with familiar coaches, should help, too.
"As the journey is going on this year, we've stopped it at different points and said, 'This is what they're trying to do. This is where you need to get better. This is where you've shown great progress,'" Paulus said ahead of the MAAC tournament. "And we've shown film, statistics, just talked about things — what he sees, because it's really important to understand what our guys see; it doesn't matter what I see.
"It's, can they see it and then communicate that, and then how can we make sure that they'll get better at that? And that's something that's been a constant feedback with all of our players with player development, and specifically in the offseason, that dialog will continue, and then you'll have a great big database to really look back on and get better in those specific areas."
All things considered, Hammond, like Niagara, feels pretty good about what the future holds, and rightfully so.
Those goals are going to be a little higher next season.
"That's the next goal, player of the year," he said. "That's what I'm going for. Going to try for a defensive team, too."