CHAMPAIGN — Kofi Cockburn had a big decision on his plate and needed to break away from basketball, recalibrate and prepare to make a tactical choice.
After returning to Champaign in May, Cockburn eventually decided to go back home to New York ahead of his decision to either withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to school or follow his dream and begin his professional career.
This was a monstrous choice for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He came to the United States from Jamaica in 2015 to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA and had declared for the draft in April. His older brother, Nagash, has been his right-hand man throughout his basketball journey and Kofi Cockburn is very close with his mother, Dorothy Wray, whose motherly advice was very much welcomed.
“I just needed to be around my mom, my brother, the people who really, really care about me, listen to what they have to tell me," Cockburn said via a Zoom meeting on Thursday. "My brother has played a huge role in me coming to the U.S. and playing basketball on the whole. Just listening to him, seeing what he has to say about it, talking to my mom about it and making sure I’m making the right decision for them, too. Just clearing my head and being in my own space so I can think better."
The thing is, Wray doesn't have a deep basketball background. She's into it only so much as because her youngest son happens to be one of the best big men in college basketball and dominated at times for Illinois as a freshman. He explained the negative effect that the cancellation of the Big Ten Tournament, NCAA Tournament and uncertainty surrounding the NBA Draft Combine had on perspective professionals. He told her how those three events could have painted a different picture for him as a prospect, even if at point during the process both Cockburn and guard Ayo Dosunmu had 'go mindsets,' Cockburn said.
"She basically explained to me that, ‘Yo, if you had a combine and you had an NCAA Tournament, I would probably be telling you to go, but you told me you didn’t have those things and you didn’t have the chance to prove what you guys could do,'" Cockburn said. "(Illinois head) Coach (Brad) Underwood and them did a really good job with me and returning, it couldn’t get any worse. They’re really good coaches and I could only get better. She explained that to me and stuff like that, just giving me motherly advice."
That was part of Cockburn's reasoning for returning to Illinois for his sophomore year, one where the Illini have national championship aspirations. He heard the feedback from the NBA and talked with Underwood and assistant coach Orlando Antigua, but a phone conversation with Dosunmu also helped him in his decision.
They talked during the process and shared their own experiences. But in one of the last conversations they had before announcing their returns one day apart from each other, Dosunmu indicated that he might return to school.
“The last conversation we had, it was really, really more interesting because that’s the conversation when he was telling me there might be a chance he comes back. That’s when the ‘what if’ came in. What if we both came back? That was really interesting to me when he told me that. It gave me a whole better,” Cockburn shifted and pressed his hands together, “a whole better understanding and basically helped my decision."
Dosunmu and Cockburn returning with a talented incoming freshman class and a strong group of returners? That's a recipe for success. Cockburn wants to win — badly — and this roster certainly has the makeup to pile them up.
“It really surprised me," Cockburn said. "At the beginning of it, I thought Ayo was 100% gone. I had no idea he was going to return. To be honest with you, even if I had a better draft stock, even if I had the opportunity to go really, really high, I still think I would have considered coming back with Ayo just because the kind of player that he is, he’s a high-caliber player and a really, really good point guard."
Cockburn knows he can make improvements after averaging 13.3 points and 8.8 rebounds as a freshman last season to go with 44 blocks. He's been shooting more 3-pointers this offseason and working on expanding his range. Though he might not have to show off that part of his game for the Illni, he's more comfortable in his shot.
The main thing to improve on? Consistency. Cockburn had massive games like his wrecking of Purdue at Mackey Arena on Jan. 21 with 22 points and 15 rebounds. But he followed it up with a five-point, three-rebound game in Ann Arbor, Mich. against the Wolverines, where Dosunmu rescued the Illini with a game-winning mid-range shot. From Jan. 25-Feb. 11, Cockburn scored in double figures just once before six straight games in double figures that included three double-doubles.
“To me, it’s all about maturity," Cockburn said. "I think last year I was a little bit inconsistent. I had games I did really good and I had games I did poorly. It’s just about proving I can dominate the game at a high level every night, that’s my focus right now."
Now the roster is set, the pieces are in place and the players are experienced to make a massive leap and a run deep into the NCAA Tournament.
"I want to be a winner," Cockburn said. "Before my individual improvement, me working on my jump shot, making sure I stay in great shape, making sure I rebound at a high level, my main interest is winning; to come back and win a national championship with these guys. It’s a great group of guys. I cherished every moment with them last year. Just that connection that I have with my team, it made my decision way easier. It’s just about winning, man."
PHOTOS: Illinois' Kofi Cockburn
Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25