When Kofi Cockburn announced his return to Illinois this summer, it immediately made the Fighting Illini a national title contender. While the Illini are only ranked No. 11 in the AP Poll, both Bart Torvik and Ken Pomeroy have them as the fifth-best team in the country.
There are currently unconfirmed reports that Cockburn may miss several games to start the year because of memorabilia he sold after he declared for the draft, and before NIL went into effect. It would be a shame to lose any player for such a trivial violation, much less a player like Kofi.
Cockburn was named an AP preseason All-American, and he’s also the Big Ten preseason Player of the Year.
So, how did Illinois’ big man get here?
Kofi’s Analytical Value
Ayo Dosunmu was the most important player on the Illini last year. Right?
Most people would agree that Ayo was the best Illini player last year, closely followed by Kofi Cockburn. After all, Ayo was a first team All-American, Kofi was on the second team. Ayo got drafted, Kofi withdrew.
But if you start to look at individual metrics, the numbers paint a slightly different picture.
Here are Cockburn and Dosunmu’s Big Ten ranks from last year in nine advanced metric categories, according to Sports-Reference.
Cockburn led the Big Ten last year in effective field goal (eFG%) and true shooting (TS%) percentages. Both stats measure all field goals, while TS% measures free throw shooting as well. Keep in mind, he only shot .553 from the line last year, and he didn’t take any threes! Imagine what he could be if he could hit 75% of his foul shots.
In addition to leading the Big Ten in eFG% and TS%, Kofi was second in offensive, defensive, and total win shares. He was also third in offensive and defensive ratings, which measure the points produced and allowed per possession, respectively.
Ayo piled up a ton of win shares because he played more minutes than Kofi, but Ayo’s win shares per 40 minutes were actually lower than Kofi’s. This isn’t to say that Ayo wasn’t a great player. He might be the best in Illinois history.
It just means that Kofi is right there with him.
How good is Kofi compared to the rest of the country? Last year, Kofi scored 17.7 PPG and grabbed 9.5 RPG per game. No other player in the country had over 15 PPG and 9 RPG.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Cockburn is 7-feet tall and 285 pounds, which in itself is rare for a college basketball player.
In fact, Kofi has more muscle (read: weighs more) than every All-NBA player from last year.
Yep, he’s a pound heavier than Jokic.
Because of this, he isn’t your typical fast-break threat, but he can still get down the floor very fast for his size.
Kofi will have to work on his mid-range and free throw shooting. According to Torvik, he only made 40.2% of his shots away from the rim, an improvement from 27.5% the year before as a freshman. Oddly enough, Kofi became a worse free throw shooter last year, going from .677 in 2020-21 to .553 in 2021-22. Both of these can be fixed with more practice reps.
In the half court game, Kofi’s nearly impossible to score on. The big man has a career 1.4 blocks per game, and only allowed 93.5 points per 100 possessions last year. That was third in the Big Ten only to Big Ten DPOY Myles Johnson and NBA lottery pick Franz Wagner. On offense, he gets doubled on nearly every possession, and he’s often triple-teamed.
However, Cockburn didn’t take advantage of many of those double- and triple-teams last year. He only recorded five total assists, down from 20 the year before. This is the area that Kofi needs to improve in the most. Like shooting, this can and should be taught through practice reps.
If you can stomach the video below, Kofi is double-teamed at 3:16. He could have passed it to Ayo or Trent Frazier on the wing for a three, Andre Curbelo at the top of the key for a drive, or Jacob Grandison for the bailout. Instead, he goes up with the shot and No. 12 Marquise Kennedy comes from behind on the help and blocks his shot.
Understandably, Brad Underwood and Orlando Antigua relied a lot on Kofi’s power last year. But when a player is double-teamed so often, he should be coached to look for the open man on the perimeter. If he’s triple-teamed like he was in the video, there will be multiple open looks.
Kofi’s lack of passing is not why Illinois lost to Loyola. Still, to make Illinois a more competitive team, Kofi will have to pass out of those double- and triple-teams. Brad Underwood knows this, and without a doubt has made this a point in practice.
Kofi’s Supporting Cast
There are two players that are key to Cockburn’s success this year. The one player that might be as important as Kofi is Andre Curbelo. We’ve seen how explosive they can be in the pick and roll.
The play below capped a big win over Indiana on the road.
#Illini Andre Curbelo with the slick pass feeds Kofi Cockburn who corals the ball and slams it home late in overtime vs Indiana. What a play to put Illinois up four over Indiana with 20 seconds left to play. pic.twitter.com/mCUcNTutAf— Hoop Informatics (@HoopInformatics) February 3, 2021
Curbelo’s development as a starting point guard is crucial to Kofi’s success.
In addition to Curbelo, Kofi now has an solid backup in Omar Payne.
As good as Giorgi Bezhanishvili was, he got pushed around from time to time. It’ll be much more difficult to push Payne around. Omar is 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, and he has a career 3.0 blocks per 40 minutes. Payne should be able to give Kofi ample rest if he gets into foul trouble, and that will enable Kofi to be even more aggressive on defense.
Kofi is extremely important to this Illini team, and now he has a backup. If he can improve his mid-range and free throw shooting, and become a better passer, Illinois will be very dangerous come tournament time.