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What does Kofi Cockburn’s decision mean for Illinois?

He said he wanted to be a one-and-done, but what is the likelihood he returns for his sophomore year?

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this afternoon, freshman Kofi Cockburn declared for the NBA Draft, and Illinois Twitter has been overrun with everyone and their mother’s opinions about the news. So here’s mine.

First, you have to look at the options on the table here for Kofi.

  • Hire an NCAA-certified agent, go through the process, get selected.

In my opinion, the likelihood of him being taken in the draft this year is slim. If he does get taken, it’s probably mid- to late-second round. He hasn’t popped up on any major draft boards that I’ve seen, but maybe sneaks into one or two now after the announcement. And as Isaac Trotter pointed out, it’s a good sell for the coaching staff.

As far as physical comparisons go, reigning Big 12 Player of the Year Udoka Azubuike and Cockburn have almost the exact same mold. Azubuike is listed at 7-foot, 270 pounds on Kansas’ official website and Cockburn checks in at 7-foot, 290. Both averaged roughly 13.5 points per game last year. Azubuike pulled down nearly 1.5 boards more game and was more efficient at nearly 75% from the field, but Cockburn shot over 20% better from the line. Azubuike appears on draft boards everywhere from late 1st round to late 2nd round. They’re born within 16 days of each other, but Azubuike has three more years of college basketball experience than Cockburn. Which leads to his next option...

  • Pursues overseas opportunities, sign with a team.

Maybe? I mean, he is a foreign product, and the fact that Kofi is late to the game could influence him to expedite the professional career as much as possible. If cashing in on talents immediately is the biggest priority and the draft doesn’t work out, this would be the play. He said last year about this time in an interview with WCIA’s Craig Choate that being a one-and-done was his goal.

Plenty of other Illini have had — and are still having — productive international careers in recent years. If that’s the case, overseas leagues would jump at signing a guy like Kofi.

  • Test the waters, receive feedback and return to school.

This option seems the most likely to me. I don’t think Kofi’s game translates to the NBA as smoothly as it would’ve 20-25 years ago. His back-to-the-basket game could use refining, and he needs to show that he’s consistent from 15 feet out. But there’s zero downside in going through the process, hearing from the best in the business, and having three more years (if needed) to perfect your craft before taking the next step. With all major sports leagues still essentially shut down due to COVID-19, this could be a months-long affair. There’s talk of the draft being pushed back until late summer.

I truly believe Cockburn could put up ridiculously stupid numbers like 24 and 15 if he stayed that long. But a sophomore season in the high teens and double-digit rebounds wouldn’t hurt the draft stock either. He’s already expected to be one of the premier big men in the country next year.

What about the Illini?

Well, this isn’t exactly a great spot for the program in the short-term. At the beginning of the offseason, a starting lineup of Ayo-Trent-Alan-Giorgi-Kofi next season looked promising. Now, there’s a possibility that only Frazier and Bezhanishvili return to the Illini next year. Tevian Jones has announced his intent to transfer as well, leaving Illinois with unproven wings that haven’t seen the floor in over a year and a half and a couple incoming freshmen.

Assuming Cockburn does leave, it’s too late to go out and get a quality big man in the 2020 class. Brandon Weston could reclassify and add some wing depth. But, head coach Brad Underwood more than likely turns to the transfer market at this point. Western Michigan graduate transfer Brandon Johnson has already excluded the Illini from his final list. Rider transfer Frederick Scott is still in play, but he’s more of a four than the traditional five.

The 2021 class becomes that much more important. If Dosunmu and Cockburn do leave this offseason, the Illini would have three open scholarships assuming they don’t land any transfers. There’s going to be at least four open scholarships heading into next year, maybe more. Names like Luke Goode, Micawber Etienne, Michael Foster, Nate Santos, Rafael Pinzon, and Jordan Nesbitt will be ones to watch.

But if Dosunmu and Cockburn return for the 2020-21 season, Illinois should be a top-10 talent with lofty expectations.