The Illinois Fighting Illini once again faced an unusual amount of roster maneuvering this offseason. Brad Underwood’s transfer class is damn impressive — Terrence Shannon, Dain Dainja, Matthew Mayer — and the incoming freshman class, headlined by Skyy Clark and Ty Rodgers, looks to be an exciting bunch.
But no matter how these players perform, no matter the significance of their roles, many of them aren’t going to be with the program long enough to have the sustainable, paradigm-shifting impact of Kofi Cockburn.
It’s hard to imagine what Illinois basketball would be like today had Kofi not committed to the program in early 2019. The 7-footer from Jamaica immediately stepped in and was a formidable force in the middle. Very few teams had the personnel to even contest Kofi one-on-one, let alone neutralize him.
The Fighting Illini won 68 games in Kofi’s three seasons in Orange & Blue. Forty-four of those victories came in conference play, more than any other Big Ten team during that stretch. And you can rightfully attribute a bulk of Illinois’ recent success to one simple statement: We have Kofi and you don’t.
To elaborate, here’s just a snippet of Cockburn’s career accolades:
- 2020 Big Ten Freshman of the Year
- Two-time All-Big Ten First Team (2021, 2022), First Team All-American (2022), Second Team All-American (2021)
- Only NCAA player to average 20+ points (20.9 ppg) and 10+ rebounds (10.6 rpg) during the 2021-22 season
- Only player to rank in the top 20 nationally in both scoring (11th) and rebounding (8th) during the 2021-22 season
- First Illini since 1972 to average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds in a single season
- 12th all-time in school history in scoring (1,546 points), 4th in free throw attempts (584), 3rd in total rebounds (861), T-6th in rebounding average (9.6 rpg), 8th in blocks (111)
- Most career points and career rebounds in Illini history among three-year players
- 75 points (18.8 ppg), 35 rebounds (8.8 rpg), 8 blocks (2.0 bpg) in four career NCAA Tournament games
- Holds Illinois’ program record with 45 double-doubles, including 17 in 2021-22.
It’s impossible for me to say the new-look Illini will be “better” than the version we’ve seen the past three seasons. They will be sleeker, more dynamic, more versatile. But they won’t possess one singular player that will affect the opposing team’s gameplan the way Kofi Cockburn did. His collegiate credentials are plain to see. We’ll be seeing his No. 21 raised to rafters of SFC in due time. But can Cockburn’s skillset translate to the NBA?
When Kofi participated in the NBA Draft Combine last month it became clear that more and more franchises were intrigued by the All-American. As of this article, he’s worked out for multiple teams, including the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz & Milwaukee Bucks.
I’ve always believed that Kofi was considered “old news,” similar to how Ayo Dosunmu was viewed a year ago — a highly productive collegiate player who was so good for so long that got overlooked in favor of younger, flashier players. When Ayo got picked by his hometown Chicago Bulls last summer, the consensus among Illini fans — you know, people that literally watched EVERY game — was that there was no way 37 other players in his draft class were better than him. That proved to be the case, as Ayo played meaningful minutes all season long for a playoff team and netted a spot on the NBA All-Rookie Team.
I strongly feel that Kofi is similarly undervalued. Like Ayo, Kofi was a multi-time All-Big Ten selection whose play vaulted him to National POTY consideration. And like Ayo, Kofi improved during each season at Illinois. His scoring, rebounding, and minutes played all increased from the previous year. He worked on bettering his free throw percentage and passing out of the post.
The holes in his game are going to scare teams away — Kofi is purely a low-post player and not a stretch-5, and though athletic for his size, is not well-suited to play off the bounce or in transition. But he is an extremely hard worker with a high motor who can rebound and finish at the rim as well as any player in the draft class. There’s always going to be a need for that.
I was much more bullish (no pun intended) on Ayo’s NBA aspirations than Kofi’s. But I do believe Cockburn will find his way to the league. It’s simply a matter of time. And based on his performance this summer, that time may come Thursday night.