CHAMPAIGN — The narrative around Kofi Cockburn’s pro potential is hard to avoid. The Illinois center would have been a guaranteed first-round pick. In the 1980s or 1990s.
That’s when players of his stature thrived in the NBA. Teams were built around their centers. The bigger, more dominant, the better.
The NBA has a maximum of 510 roster spots for its 30 teams. Just 29 of those spots are filled by players listed at 7-foot or taller.
Fewer bear a passing resemblance to Cockburn’s 7-foot and 285 pounds. Unicorn hunting the past several years has carved out more roster space for the Kristaps Porzingis types.
Cockburn is aware of his narrative as a potential future pro. It’s also a narrative he doesn’t lend much attention.
“I really don’t listen to that, to be honest,” Cockburn said. “I know what I’m capable of. I know how I can dominate a game.
“Nobody’s perfect. There’s always improvements to be made. I don’t really worry about it. I don’t stress it. I know what kind of player I am. I’m going to stick to my style. Obviously, I’m going to work on stuff, but I don’t let it stress me.”
Cockburn spent part of his offseason fine-tuning his jump shot. The proof is in the video that made its way around social media earlier this summer of the Illini big man looking awfully comfortable behind the three-point line.
“It’s about getting reps up,” Cockburn said. “Right now I feel really confident with my jump shot. Last year I laid back as a freshman. It wasn’t my place to just come out shooting jump shots. Now as a veteran, I could probably step out and take a couple. I’m way more confident with my shot watching it go in, working on it, shooting a lot in practice. … That was a huge step in development.”
Cockburn’s comfort level shooting jump shots is where he sees his game developing further. The pros he would like to mold his game after include Joel Embiid and DeMarcus Cousins. Dominant post players with a soft touch on the perimeter. Versatile big men able to play in any style or system.
Grown to the perimeter, though, would be a departure from Cockburn’s debut season at Illinois. The eventual Big Ten Freshman of the Year attempted a single three-pointer during the 2019-20 season — a miss at home against Michigan in last December’s win against the Wolverines. His other 283 attempts came inside the arc and mostly at or around the rim. Cockburn made 35 of 37 dunks and 119 of 173 shots at the rim overall.
But Cockburn knows where he’s most effective. He’s not looking for the green light from Illinois coach Brad Underwood to start launching three-pointers on every possession.
“That’s not my goal to go out there every day and shoot three-pointers,” Cockburn said. “But it’s just about necessity. If Coach Underwood needs me to make a three, I’ll definitely go out there and knock it down for him. As of right now, I’m just making sure I’m capable of doing it. Making sure I have that in my repertoire.”
Cockburn’s primary focus for his sophomore season is consistency. He understands he had games as a freshman where he dominated. Like his first career double-double with 23 points and 14 rebounds in a road win at Grand Canyon. Or the 22 points and 15 rebounds he put up when the Illini won at Purdue for the first time in more than a decade.
Cockburn also knows he wasn’t always at his best during the 2019-20 season. Like his struggles on the road at Arizona, Maryland, Michigan State and Iowa.
“To me, it’s all about maturity,” Cockburn said. “I think last year I was a little bit inconsistent. I had games where I did really good, and I had games where I did poorly. It’s just about proving I can dominate the game at a high level every night. That’s just my focus right now.
“I feel like that just was the freshman in me — making mistakes going through as I played. I feel like now I’m more mature, more confident going out there. I know what’s expected now of me.”
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).