CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn’s decision to enter the transfer portal and follow through on it even after withdrawing from the 2021 NBA draft created waves in the college basketball world.
Cockburn was arguably the highest profile player to enter the portal since its inception. Simply put, consensus All-Americans just don’t transfer.
Zero in the last 30 years.
That number won’t change either.
Cockburn announced his decision to return Illinois early Friday evening, giving an instant boost to a basketball program that could use one after the roller coaster that had been the Illini offseason. Cockburn’s announcement was the smooth finish to that at times bumpy ride.
“Champaign became my home, and Illinois basketball became my family,” Cockburn said during his announcement video he shared on social media. He was not otherwise available for comment on Friday evening.
“I’ll never forget what these last two years have meant to me as a person and as a player,” Cockburn’s video narration continued. “But it’s time to move forward. It’s time to put the past in the past and take the next step. It’s time to bring a national championship back to Champaign.”
Illinois’ continued pursuit of a national championship isn’t exactly out of the question. Cockburn’s return to Illinois created some ripples of its own, raising the team’s national profile in the same way Ayo Dosunmu and Cockburn did last summer when they opted for another season in Champaign.
“It instantly makes Illinois a top-three team in the Big Ten and a top-10 team nationally,” CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein told The News-Gazette. “The expectation is to be one of the best teams in the Big Ten and a top team nationally. That gives Illinois fans, in my opinion, another season that has a chance at a run to a potential Final Four.”
The Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy was of a similar opinion. Cockburn back in Champaign reinserts Illinois into the thick of the eventual Big Ten race. The Illini will be title contenders again.
“I wouldn’t put them at the front of that line, but if you’re in the mix for that, you’re really in the mix for just about everything,” DeCourcy told The News-Gazette.
Cockburn might have been the highest profile player to withdraw from this year’s NBA draft, but he wasn’t alone in that move. Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell and Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson and DeVante’ Jones made similar decisions. So did UCLA’s Johnny Juzang, St. John’s Julian Champagnie, Vanderbilt’s Scotty Pippen Jr. and Texas Tech’s Terrence Shannon Jr.
The opportunity in college basketball with the passing of name, image and likeness legislation has made eschewing the draft in favor of a return a chance to earn some money and still develop for the pros.
“I don’t have any problem with guys going who are first-round picks, lottery picks,” DeCourcy said. “It’s the smart move for them. But guys who weren’t going to be selected or were going to be selected late, they can continue to develop. Pretty much everybody on that list can get better significantly.
“The improvement Ayo made a year ago is an ideal example of that. He went out of the 2020 season as an average shooter to below average shooter and came back as a terrific shooter. That’s what’s possible. I think the game overall will be much better with that numbers of players returning and that number of players working hard to make the kind of jumps Ayo did last year.”
Cockburn has room to make improvement. Both DeCourcy and Rothstein mentioned the 7-foot, 285-pound center turning into a more willing and capable passer out of the post to better utilize what could be an improved three-point shooting Illinois team. The get-to-the-NBA growth, though, probably has to come at the other end of the court.
Rothstein compared Cockburn’s performance during a December home win against Minnesota to the college version of Shaquille O’Neal in the 2000 NBA playoffs with the Los Angeles Lakers. Cockburn dominated the Gophers to the tune of 33 points (on 80 percent shooting) and 13 rebounds.
“Kofi’s proven he’s going to be an accurate guy around the rim,” Rothstein said. “He’s going to rebound the basketball and give you rim protection on defense, but you saw one of the things that happened in the Loyola game was Porter Moser made it really, really clear right away that he wanted to get Kofi moving and have to be a mobile defender. Obviously, Loyola Chicago and Cameron Krutwig took great advantage of that.
“To stay on the floor, it’s not just about what you’re going to be doing offensively. It’s what you’re going to be doing defensively. Can he continue to improve his ball-screen defense? Can his lateral quickness improve?”
Those questions will be answered as the 2021-22 season progresses. For now, Cockburn’s decision for another year at Illinois should cap what’s been a somewhat tumultuous offseason.
Brad Underwood was able to answer roster losses and coaching staff turnover at every turn. Adam Miller transfers to LSU? Alfonso Plummer heads to Illinois from Utah. All three assistant coaches leave? Chester Frazier, Geoff Alexander and Tim Anderson are the answer.
Cockburn’s return was the final piece — perhaps — to the puzzle. Certainly the biggest in terms of potential impact for the 2021-22 season. Underwood still has one open scholarship to work with, but can now be much more selective with how he uses it.
For now, Underwood can move toward the 2021-22 season knowing he has a returning All-American to anchor his roster.
“We are beyond thrilled to have Kofi remain a Fighting Illini and add the nation’s top player to our lineup,” Underwood said in a statement released shortly after Cockburn’s decision. Underwood, like Cockburn, was also not available otherwise to speak with the media. “Kofi has been thorough during every step of his process, from exploring professional opportunities to making the decision to return to college. He has played a major role in our success the last two years and has more individual and team goals to achieve this season. Kofi will have the chance to expand new aspects of his game while continuing to be a dominant inside force on both ends of the floor.”