Illini star Kofi Cockburn on his NBA dream: ‘It’s up to me to believe in myself’

Cockburn might not even be drafted next month. That’s not something a first-team All-American last season wants to contemplate.

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Kofi Cockburn dunks during the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Kofi Cockburn scored two post-up baskets in the first 90 seconds of an NBA Draft Combine game Thursday at Wintrust Arena. He ended it with 11 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, set an array of bone-rattling screens and punctuated his outing by pinning Purdue big man Trevion Williams on his front hip, catching a deep post lob and dunking home a signature rim-rattler.

But did it even matter?

A generation ago, Cockburn, a mountainous 7-footer from Illinois, would have been one of the top prizes of the draft. A former NBA coach and general manager in attendance posited that Cockburn would have “easily” gone in the top five.

But the NBA has evolved. There’s so much movement and three-point shooting — and so much ground to cover for big men on defense — in today’s game that Cockburn is kind of a dinosaur. The decision-makers watching him rag-doll fellow prospects under the basket at the combine already knew he could do that. Can he hit an open jumper? Can he defend against the pick-and-roll?

Cockburn might not even be drafted next month. That’s not something a first-team All-American last season wants to contemplate.

“I hear both negative and positive things,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, it’s up to me to believe in myself, believe in what I’m capable of doing. What people say, whether it’s positive or negative, shouldn’t have an impact on what I do and how I perform.”

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Cockburn drilling at the NBA Combine.

AP Photos

Cockburn spent much of the last two months working out in Los Angeles with fellow draft prospects — N.C. State’s Terquavian Smith, Gonzaga’s Andrew Nembhard, Texas Tech’s Bryson Williamson, Baylor’s Adam Flagler — and thinks he showed up in Chicago a better, more NBA-ready player. Cockburn is down 13 pounds and significantly has reduced his body-fat percentage since the end of the Illini’s season, which he played in the low 300s, even though the school listed him at 285.

Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams tangled with Auburn’s Jabari Smith — potentially the No. 1 overall pick — and a host of other top bigs in the SEC and during a deep NCAA Tournament run. After facing Cockburn in Chicago, he was a believer.

“We were all talking on the bench about how big and how strong he is,” Williams said. “Kofi is a great player, definitely one of the best bigs I’ve ever played against.”

Does Cockburn miss the Champaign life?

“Definitely,” he said. “A lot.”

Does he think he’ll hear his name called during the draft?

“Yeah, I do. I’m not going to take my focus off that for a second.”

Who else in this draft can bang bodies like he can?

“Nobody. I’m serious. Nobody.”

Some NBA team might want a guy like that around.

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