Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer
July 15, 2021
The best basketball player in the world doesn’t need to shoot the ball outside of the paint. In an era of basketball that has become more spaced out and shooting has become more valued, Giannis Antetokounmpo is still the most valuable player in the world.
Following in the wake of his predecessor LeBron James, he is the type of player that all the other teams will have to adjust to. His ability to punish teams for going small with his his sheer physicality may start the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction when considering how NBA teams design their rosters.
This pendulum swing could lead to teams realizing having a dominant inside presence is a necessity. Not having a physical center that can deter opposing offensive players from going to the rim at will is detrimental and leaves a coach with one less option to go to strategically.
One player that might benefit from this realization is Kofi Cockburn. While his future with Illinois basketball is uncertain right now, I still believe his ceiling in the NBA is much higher than most of the basketball media and even NBA scouts believe.
While he hasn’t showcased his perimeter shooting much in college, he has actually been pretty efficient from this area and shows promise moving forward. From the free-throw line there is much more concern. Peeling back the onion a bit, based on the improvement of his free throw percentage from his freshman year to his sophomore results, Kofi should be expected to shoot a much higher percentage as a junior than he did last season, but that is certainly not a given.
Even if one concedes that Kofi will never become some lights out shooter from the midrange, this shouldn’t be a concern given his archetype. Of the 4 centers getting a majority of the minutes in the NBA Conference Finals this year, only one of the four attempts many shots outside of layups, dunks or put back's off of offensive rebounds.
Ultimately, in the next two classes Kofi is the most physically imposing of any post players. His ability to get up and down the court at 285+ pounds in actually astounding. To go along with that unusual ability, he is underrated as a pick and roll lob threat and as a shot blocker. He isn’t an elite shot blocking threat like an Anthony Davis, he is similar to Shaq in terms of perception. He has been labeled as a poor rim protector because his block numbers aren’t impressive. It must be pointed out that he has less opportunities for blocks as teams won’t drive directly at him very often when he is in the paint. Opponents would rather take a contested jumper than drive into him at the rim - and at the highest level - most of the metrics suggest that is a win for the defense.
The area that would most excite me as GM is the impact that he could provide on the boards. Every time that a shot goes up, he must be accounted for on both ends of the court. His ability to end defensive possessions by not allowing a second chance is enough to make a unit better on the defensive end. When opposing teams have to double down on him on the their defensive glass, the rest of his offensive unit should have an advantage somewhere else on the floor. Teams that control the glass come out on top more often than not - and Kofi should be a plus rebounder - even against the most athletic players in the league (or the world).
Looking at NBA rosters, there are a few teams that stand out to me as destinations where Kofi could really make a difference.
The Brooklyn Nets are the first team that comes to mind when looking for a roster that is missing a difference maker at the center position. This is a team that is one player away from being in the Finals right now and having a chance to win it all. By playing small ball, the Nets sacrifice a ton on the glass. The Nets tried to make up for the lack of size by going all offensive, but that strategy hasn't worked against other elite teams who have (and will) punish them in the paint.
If Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant are going to be taking tough jumpers from the midrange and 3-point land, why not have a guy who excels as an offensive rebounder like Kofi? He would get them second chance points, and while he isn’t an elite perimeter defender, he would help on the other end around the basket. His presence alone on this team would give Nash a different option, especially when the small ball is struggling.
Another team that sticks out to me is the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs lost to Clippers in the first round of the NBA Playoffs for the second straight year, but the Mavs have proven to be a much tougher out than anyone expected going into the series. In this year's series, the Mavs resorted to playing Boban Marjanovic in the last 4 games between 15 to 30 minutes a night. Boban is obviously a large human being, but he has even more limitations than Kofi.
If Kofi were to get in this type of pick and roll offense, he would excel as a screen setter for Luka due to his wide frame - and he is underrated as a lob threat. This Mav’s team has their perimeter rotation set, but they need a new complimentary big man. This is even more apparent when Kristaps Porzingis is struggling and responds by hiding out on the 3-point line all night - even when he isn’t hitting. Kofi’s defensive limitations on the perimeter will still be an issue, but do you expect him to not be a significant step up from Boban? This team is all about offense, offense, offense and Kofi could take it to the next level.
Two other teams that could be looking for a center option depending on contract situations are the Memphis Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors. Neither team has a long term option at the center position on their roster right now - and either team could use an upgrade moving forward. With Jonas Valanciunas just turning 29, his age difference between the rest of the Grizzlies core poses the question of whether they should re-sign him to a large contract. If they opt to not re-sign him, finding a young center to pair with their finesse stretch power forward Jaren Jackson Jr, should be in their plans.
The Raptors on the other hand could be taking a significant step up this next season after having a down season due to COVID ravaging their lineups all year. The 4th pick will most likely get them Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs, so taking a frontcourt option next year would make sense. Fred Van Fleet, OG Anunoby, and Pascal Siakam are a good core, but they need someone to control the glass at the center position. If their pick ends up in the 20’s, Kofi would be a good draft value player with a high talent floor to help the Raptors win immediately.
This final team could be my Illini bias showing, but after an unfortunate injury happened in the NBA Finals forcing the Phoenix Suns to play Frank Kaminsky during crucial minutes, my opinion has evolved concerning the Suns and Kofi as well. It’s hard for me to imagine a player with Kofi Cockburn's physical size and his rebounding skills won't have a place in the NBA.
Kofi might not provide shooting to same degree as other selected big men, but in every facet other than shooting, he is a more impactful player at the center position than many centers who are currently occupying roster slots in the NBA. He and his people may need to mount some sort of social media campaign aimed at educating a limited number of teams on the benefits Kofi will provide their rosters. This is hardly a daunting task. In fact, it is a small effort when you consider the possible payoff for Kofi in the long run.
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