CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn had a double-double in his Illinois basketball debut, putting up 10 points and 11 rebounds during the Illini’s season-opening win against Nicholls State on Nov. 5, 2019.
By season’s end, the 7-foot, 290-pound center had tallied 11 more double-doubles and earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors.
Cockburn is now looking to parlay his freshman year success to the next level. The Kingston, Jamaica, native announced Tuesday afternoon that he would declare for the 2020 NBA draft. Early entrants currently have until April 26 to make that decision and can retain their eligibility if they decide to pull their name from the draft, as the schedule currently stands, by a June 3 deadline.
“Ever since I began playing basketball, a fire has been lit inside me which I knew I had to pursue to the fullest extent,” Cockburn posted on Instagram. “With that being said, I have decided to declare for the 2020 NBA Draft. Embarking on this new journey is something I have always dreamt of, and I have a special love for everyone who’s helped me get here.”
Cockburn’s Instagram post did not indicate whether he intended to retain an agent. Early entrants in the NBA draft can sign with an NCAA-certified agent — of which there are just 23 nationally — and still maintain their college eligibility.
That move can only be made, however, after a player requests an evaluation from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee, which provides information to players on their potential draft prospects.
“We are in full support of Kofi’s decision,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “We’re recruiting players to Illinois who have career aspirations of playing at the highest level. We will continue to help Kofi in every way possible as he goes through this process and with the information he receives from the NBA Undergraduate Advisory Committee.”
Cockburn is one of several Big Ten big men that have declared for the NBA draft. That list also includes Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu, Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson, Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman and Maryland’s Jalen Smith, who also declared Tuesday. Cockburn went head to head with them — along with the likes of other early entrants in Arizona’s Zeke Nnaji and Missouri’s Jeremiah Tilmon — during the 2019-20 season.
Cockburn was Illinois’ second-leading scorer and top rebounder as a freshman, averaging 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds. He also led the Illini with 1.4 blocks per game, including a crucial one on Big Ten Player of the Year Luka Garza in the final seconds of Illinois’ regular season finale victory against Iowa. Cockburn shot 53.2 percent from the field and 67.7 percent at the free-throw line.
Cockburn became a central point around which much of Illinois’ offensive and defensive schemes were adjusted this season. The former four-star recruit was also the centerpiece of the Illini’s 2019 recruiting class — the bridge from five-star guard Ayo Dosunmu in 2018 to four- and five-star guards Andre Curbelo and Adam Miller in 2020.
Cockburn played three seasons at Christ the King (N.Y.) before finishing his high school career at Oak Hill Academy (Va.). He committed to Illinois on Jan. 6, 2019, before a loss at Northwestern after taking an official visit a week prior that saw the Illini lose at home to Florida Atlantic.
Like Dosunmu, he bought into Underwood’s program while the only aspect the Illinois coaches could sell was a vision of future success. Success that Cockburn helped deliver during a 21-10 season this past winter for the Illini.
“I would like to thank God for giving me the opportunity to live out my dream and play this wonderful game that I love so much,” Cockburn’s Instagram post also read. “Thank you to my coaches and mentors for taking a chance on me and guiding me on this journey. To my family, I can’t thank you enough for the love and guidance. Without it I don’t know where I’d be today.
“To my team, the bond I have created with my teammates is something I will cherish forever. We continued to uplift, encourage and motivate one another on and off the court, and for that I am thankful. To Illini nation, what a road it’s been. Thank you for welcoming me with open arms. You guys made this journey all the more special. Game after game, you’ve filled the arena showing us what true unconditional support is.”