By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
June 24, 2022
(Cover photo courtesy Chicago Sun-Times)
The dream of hearing his name called in the NBA Draft did not come true for Kofi Cockburn.
The former Illinois All-American center was not selected in the 2022 NBA Draft on Thursday night, but his quest to make an NBA roster next season will continue with the Utah Jazz. The club, which didn't have a selection in the draft and doesn't currently have a head coach, signed Cockburn to a deal shortly after the draft ended, according to multiple outlets. No details have been announced, but it's expected the 7-footer will join the Jazz's Summer League team for games in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas beginning the week of July 4th.
A Cockburn selection would’ve obviously marked a second straight year that an Illinois player was drafted after Ayo Dosunmu was taken by the Chicago Bulls in the second round with the 38th overall pick. The last time Illini players have been selected in back-to-back drafts since the first round picks of Deron Williams (3rd overall by Utah) and Luther Head (24th overall by Houston) in 2005 was followed by a pair of second round picks (James Augustine, 41st overall by Orlando and Dee Brown, 46th overall by Utah) in 2006. The last true Illini center to be selected in the NBA Draft was in 2012 when Meyers Leonard went No. 11 overall to the Portland Trailblazers.
The 7-foot, 290-pound center ended his time at Illinois as 12th most prolific scorer in school history with 1,546 career points and third most productive player on the glass with 861 rebounds.
Numerous players each year turn a standout Summer League performance into a contract to play in the G-League, including former Illini players Roger Powell, Malcolm Hill, Brandon Paul, and Kendrick Nunn made their NBA debuts.
“To play in the NBA has been a dream of mine, and I truly think it's time for me to take that next step,” Cockburn said in a social media post when he announced on April 20. “This journey (at Illinois) has been a very special one. Never did I ever imagine being a part of something so fun and extraordinary.”
It was unclear based on national reporting and published mock drafts whether Cockburn would be selected among the 58 picks in the 2022 draft, but Illinois fifth-year head coach Brad Underwood said last week he remained “hopeful” that his star center would be picked.
“I’m excited for [Cockburn]. I’m hopeful. He’s been very solid in his workouts. He’s done what he has needed to do in terms of positioning himself to be drafted,” Underwood said on June 15.
Despite being evaluated by most as a imperfect fit for the modern-day style of professional basketball, Cockburn’s analytical numbers stood out at Illinois as his usage rate at Illinois in the paint allowed for him to be one of the highest-rated players in terms of PER and win shares per 40 minutes.
“Kofi is not for everybody. The style of play some teams play, they don’t want that. They don’t want a big guy, but there are some who do,” Underwood said. “We’ll see how it goes in a week. I’m praying for him. I’m excited for him. Obviously, the legacy he left here is second to none. We’ll be pulling for him in future endeavors.”
Cockburn, who will likely see his jersey raised to the rafters at State Farm Center, earned several honors in his three-year career with the Illini including becoming just the second player in school history to become a two-time All-America selection, joining Dee Brown. The 7-footer, along with Dosunmu, began the renovation of the Illini program after verbally committing on Jan. 6, 2019, just a week after his official visit despite holding offers from Kansas, Tennessee, Oregon, Indiana and Georgetown.
Cockburn left Illinois with the most career double-double games (45) in school history. During last year’s 2021-22 season, Cockburn was the only player in the nation averaging at least 20 points (21.1 ppg) and 10 rebounds (10.6 rpg) per game and the only player ranked in the top 20 nationally in both scoring (12th) and rebounding (eighth). The Jamaican native was the first high-major player since 2018, and first Big Ten Conference player since 2004, to average at least 21 points and 10 rebounds.
Cockburn led Illinois to a share of the regular season Big Ten championship, with the team finishing 23-10 after a second round loss in the NCAA tournament.
After having arguably the most dominant league in college basketball, the Big Ten Conference had a very successful draft night with four players drafted in the first round (Iowa forward Keegan Murray, No. 4 overall by Sacramento; Purdue guard Jaden Ivey, No. 5 overall by Detroit; Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis to Washington with the No. 10 pick; and Ohio State guard Malachi Branham, No. 20 overall by San Antonio).
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