BREAKING NEWS: Illini Center Kofi Cockburn Withdraws From NBA Draft To Return For Sophomore Season

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The reigning Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Year selection in men’s basketball will be returning for his second season of college action.

Illinois center Kofi Cockburn has announced Saturday he’ll be withdrawing his name from NBA draft consideration to return for his sophomore season with the Illini program. Adam Zagoria, a contributing writer/reporter for The New York Times, NJ Advance Media and several newspapers nationwide, was the first to report this news. 

Cockburn’s declaration comes less than 24 hours after Illini star guard Ayo Dosunmu confirmed his intention to return to Illinois. With both Dosunmu and Cockburn coming back, Illinois has the potential to be a top 10-15 team in the preseason polls for the first time since 2010.

Cockburn was named the Big Ten Conference’s Freshman of the Year selection by both the media and coaches after averaging 13.3 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 53.2 percent from the field. The 7-foot, 290-pound center from Queens, N.Y., was an unanimous selection to the coaches' All-Freshman team and was a third-team All-Big Ten pick by the media, while garnering All-Big Ten honorable mention accolades from the coaches. Cockburn was the fourth Illini player in school history to win the league's freshman of the year award, following Cory Bradford in 1999, Brian Cook in 2000 and D.J. Richardson in 2010.

Cockburn declared his intention to investigate the NBA Draft process on April 7 but declined to sign with an agent in order to preserve his eligibility for a potential sophomore season. However, Cockburn’s limited offensive game and his struggles to consistently guard players outside the lane last year, as well as the coronavirus pandemic limiting offseason professional draft workout opportunities for all prospects, saw the draft stock of the Illini center never rise to the level of a guaranteed pick.

“To my team, the bond I have created with my teammates is something I will cherish forever,” Cockburn said in a statement when he declared for the draft. “We continued to uplift, encourage and motivate one another on and off the court and for that I am thankful. To Illini Nation, what a road it’s been. Thank you for welcoming me with open arms. You guys made this journey all the more special. Game after game, you filled the arena showing us what true unconditional support is.”

Zagoria reported earlier this week that Cockburn was not one of the prospects to receive an invitation to a future draft combine after the restarted 2019-20 NBA season is completed in the Orlando bubble.

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood confirmed in June during a segment on a local ESPN radio show ‘The Drive with Lon Tay & Derek Piper’ that the Jamaican-born center had returned to Champaign-Urbana after spending most of the spring in a COVID-19 stay-at-home order inside his Queens neighborhood. During most of the month of July, Cockburn returned to New York to train on his own away from his teammates already on the U of I campus for voluntary workouts.

Both Cockburn and Dosunmu had until Monday to withdraw their names from the NBA draft process and retain their eligibility under the revised NCAA rules.

Cockburn returns to college basketball as one of the most dominant big men in arguably the best league in college basketball (likely along with Iowa's Luka Garza) while still being able to work on his raw but high potential offensive game with Illini assistant coach Orlando Antigua. Cockburn appeared on Twitter this week shooting three-point shots, which he only attempted one during the entire 2019-20 season.

With the return of Dosunmu and Cockburn, Illinois returns four of its five starters from last season’s squad that finished 21-10 overall, a top four finish in the league standings and what was likely a single digit seed in the eventually canceled 2020 NCAA tournament. The Illini, which will be a favorite to win the arguably the most competitive conference in college basketball, is set to have its most talented and experienced roster in 15 years—since the 2004-05 squad that was ranked No. 1 and lost in the national championship game to North Carolina.