Antigua dishes on Cockburn and what he brings to Illini

Antigua dishes on Cockburn and what he brings to Illini

CHAMPAIGN —Fifteen years ago Kofi Cockburn might have been a top five prospect in the country.

The 2004 class wasn't lacking for big guys — literally big — at the top. Dwight Howard went from No. 1 prospect to No. 1 pick in the NBA draft that same year. Al Jefferson, Randolph Morris, Robert Swift and Glen Davis were all ranked in the top 20.

Even 10 years ago there was a rush on back-to-the-basket big men. Derrick Favors, DeMarcus Cousins, Renardo Sidney, Tiny Gallon, Mouphtaou Yarou, Daniel Orton and Alex Oriakhi were — again — all top 20 prospects. Just ignore the incredible bust rate from that group.

Now? Cockburn has some contemporaries in the size and power department like Washington-bound Isaiah Stewart and future Duke center Vernon Carey Jr., but the era of pace and space has put the squeeze on what are now considered "old school" big men.

Illinois is trying to exploit that market inefficiency, if you will. While some teams zig away from a player like Cockburn, the Illini are zagging right into what they feel is a game changer on the block and another needed piece in the frontcourt for coach Brad Underwood.

"Coach is looking to add size, but diversity to our roster," Illinois assistant coach Orlando Antigua said. "It's not every day you come across a 7-foot, 295-pound post that has skill level. That's one of the things I don't think gets publicized enough about him is his hands, his feet, his ability to pass and he's a really good teammate. You start to equate all those things, and it fits the culture and the need we have here."

Antigua didn't have a comparison for Cockburn right now in college basketball.

"He's very unique, which makes him special for us," Antigua said. "Yes, he's big, strong and physical, but he has some touch and he's got some passing ability people don't necessarily see. That adds to the layers of his game that we can help enhance. ... Having someone that can move with that size definitely is going to put a lot of stress on defenses trying to figure out how to defend him on the post."

Cockburn's abilities beyond just being a force in the paint adds to his unique nature. But he can still get the ball on the block, drop step and dunk on his opponents' head. That happened plenty during his time at Christ The King (N.Y.) and Oak Hill Academy (Va.) before he signed with Illinois last month.

"There's a lot of value to that," Antigua said. "There's a lot of value to having him offensive rebound and crash the boards because now you have to put bodies on him to try to keep him away. ... There's a value to his size in those areas. Those are all things we hope to try and put in place."

How Cockburn will fit in a diverse frontcourt that will include Giorgi Bezhanishvili, Samba Kane and Bernard Kouma (if and when he signs) is what the Illinois coaching staff will work on this summer. Cockburn is set to arrive on campus next month.

"His talent and his ability will allow him to have a big impact on our team in an area we need to have an impact on," said Antigua, the lead recruiter on Cockburn. "Obviously, it's going to depend on how hard he works this summer and how much we help him get into the right frame of mind that he needs to be in with what we're going to ask of him.

"That takes a lot of work. It's going to be a lot different. He's going to go through his growing spurts and highs and lows, but we've got a great summer planned that's going to allow him to grow and speed up the process."

Part of Illinois' work this summer is figuring out how Cockburn and Bezhanishvili can play together. That's the combination the Illini coaches want.

"We'll have a better feel for that once we get them on the court to see how that's going to operate," Antigua said. "That's our thought right now that they'll be playing a lot together and playing off of one another. Being different and having different pieces that you can utilize in different items of the game is important for the way we want to play."

The onus isn't just on Cockburn coming in as the new part of that duo to make it work. Bezhanishvili will have to show he can stretch the floor at the 4, which Antigua said is the Georgian big man's natural position. Bezhanishvili, though, shot just 5 of 30 (16.7 percent) from three-point range during his freshman season.

"Had we concentrated and needed that from him more last year, I think you would have seen different results," Antigua said. "For what this team needed last year, we needed him to have a presence in the paint. He's more than a capable three-point shooter, and he's going to continue to grow in that area. That's something he's been working on this spring an awful lot just because we're going to need him to space the court that way."

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-351-5605, by email at srichey@news-gazette.com and on Twitter (@srrichey).

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