Kofi Cockburn out to prove NBA doubters wrong after the draft combine: ‘They have no idea what I’m capable of’

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Kofi Cockburn knew he entered the NBA draft combine this week in Chicago with plenty to prove.

After using the event as a growth experience last year, the former Illinois center is set on entering the NBA next season. And despite second-round projections and questions about his perimeter abilities, Cockburn believes he can carve out a place as a professional.

“A lot of people doubt my ability to adapt to the NBA,” Cockburn said. “You can put me in any situation and I can definitely contribute. … The NBA is a whole different ballgame. They have no idea what I’m capable of so they’ll always have doubt.”

Cockburn declared for the draft after his third season at Illinois after averaging 20.9 points and 10.6 rebounds and being named an All-American for the second straight year.

Measuring 7 feet tall with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Cockburn’s size was his most obvious advantage at the combine. With other top center prospect such as Chet Holmgren opting out of scrimmages to avoid injury, Cockburn towered over his opposition Thursday and Friday.

Cockburn idolized Shaquille O’Neal as a young player learning the game in Jamaica, and that hard-nosed physicality in the post dominates his style of play.

“A lot of people tell me if it was the 1990s, I’d be drafted in the top 10,” Cockburn said with a laugh.

But the center role has changed dramatically since O’Neal’s era, piling new expectations on big men.

Cockburn isn’t a strong perimeter shooter, missing the only 3-pointer he attempted at Illinois. His agility also was a key emphasis for improvement throughout his collegiate career, seeing major improvement in his junior season. He still needs to develop that area of his game to succeed in the NBA, in which big men such as Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid regularly knock down 3s to stretch the court.

Cockburn is still a top-15 center with second-round projections, but his stock could be limited by how the position has evolved.

Wednesday’s workouts highlighted expected strengths and weaknesses for Cockburn. Despite going 14-for-25 in midrange shooting — tying for first in the drill — he went 14-for-25 (36th overall) in spot shooting. He also was one of the slowest players in the shuttle run (fourth-worst at 3.31 seconds) and lane-agility test (third-worst at 12.11 seconds).

The two days of scrimmaging allowed Cockburn to showcase his abilities in the paint. He logged 11 points and 13 rebounds Thursday, then recorded 19 points and 11 rebounds Friday.

Although Cockburn said he wasn’t satisfied with the number of touches he received in the scrimmages, he emphasized the importance of showing teams he can outrebound any opponent.

“I figured these guys are going to shoot, I’m going to rebound,” Cockburn said. “No team is going to put me in the star play. I’m going to have to find my role playing defense, talking, bringing positive energy and rebounding.”

Cockburn brought a boisterous presence to the court during scrimmages, hollering support at teammates from the sideline and slinging an arm around opponents with a grin after fouls. When he smashed a two-handed dunk through the rim in the second half of Friday’s scrimmage, Cockburn’s excited shout reverberated at Wintrust Arena.

His success at the combine continued a week of good news for the Illinois program. Former Illinois teammate and Bulls guard Ayo Dosunmu, a Morgan Park product, earned a spot on the All-Rookie second team Wednesday, capping a breakout season.

Despite falling into the second round in last year’s draft, Dosunmu thrived after the Bulls selected him with the 38th pick. He carried the mantle of starting point guard for most of the final third of the season as injuries plagued the starting lineup, averaging 8.8 points and 3.3 assists.

Although the Bulls need to bulk up their interior to support center Nikola Vučević, Cockburn is unlikely to land in Chicago. The Bulls still haven’t been able to develop 2020 draft pick Marko Simonović, a 6-foot-11 Serbian forward who spent most of the season with the Windy City roster. This offseason, they’re in search of more developed talent to improve their size, while Cockburn will require more long-term development.

But Cockburn said he still counts on Dosunmu to put in a good word with the Bulls front office ahead of the draft. The two still talk every day, a relationship Cockburn doesn’t expect to change even if they become opponents next season.

During the Bulls season, he called Dosunmu ahead of every game for a pep talk. Dosunmu did the same ahead of the combine.

“It’s him being that brother to me,” Cockburn said. “He always looks out for me.”

The combine was a familiar experience for Cockburn, who underwent the process last year. At the time, Cockburn said it was a difficult decision to return to college. This year, that choice was easier — even with the potential of guaranteed NIL deals awaiting him in Champaign.

After taking 19 interviews at last year’s combine, Cockburn said he didn’t interview with any new teams this week, although his agent is coordinating meetings with several teams.

Cockburn’s next steps will be decided June 23 at the NBA in New York.