What Kofi Cockburn brings to the Utah Jazz

What Kofi Cockburn brings to the Utah Jazz

There’s no way to get around it, and so it might as well be the lead: Kofi Cockburn faces an uphill climb to stay in the NBA. The cultural, contextual forces allayed against him are stronger than they have ever been.

Ten years ago, Cockburn’s decision to stay in the NBA Draft would have made perfect sense; it would have been too obvious to even discuss. In an era gone by, a hulking, unguardable 7-foot force with Cockburn’s elite record of collegiate performance always went pro, and usually far sooner than three years in school. The league has evolved massively since. In 2022, college centers as decorated as player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe, Drew Timme, Armando Bacot, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Hunter Dickinson (among others) all decided to go back to school, not only thanks to the ability to make some money on campus but also mostly because the NBA no longer wants these players as more than bench fillers and potential lineup cover. Being big and good around the rim, being the guy your college team throws it down low to as you muscle your way to another high-percentage post shot, is no longer enough to be a viable pro. NBA bigs have to be skilled, play away from the rim, switch screens and guard multiple spots. The incentives for drafting these players have changed.

Can Cockburn do those things? He clearly thought so. His coaches at Illinois thought so, too. “I think he can do these things,” his Illini position coach, assistant Geoff Alexander, said. “I’m a big believer in Kofi. He’s got a big-time will. He just works. He hears all this stuff, about what he can or can’t do, and he knows he can do them. ” The fact that Cockburn was undrafted Thursday night but quickly scooped up by Utah on a contract, per ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, suggests the Jazz also have that faith in Cockburn.

To pay it off, Cockburn will have to expand his game beyond what he displayed on the floor during games at Illinois. He has already been on this path for much of his highly successful collegiate career, when he helped lead a long-awaited revival of Illinois men’s basketball, and when he went from a hugely talented raw big dude who dunked on people to someone with enough ball skill to play in short rolls and knock down the occasional floater, someone with much more to him than layups and mass. One major area of ​​concern early in his career, even well into his sophomore season, was ball-screen coverage, wherein opponents ruthlessly targeted him any time Illinois allowed Cockburn to hedge or switch out away from the rim. The more drop coverages he played, the better he was, but he also became much more sophisticated in the way he held his positioning and rotated with his team.

Outside shooting is another area for development. Cockburn is reportedly capable of it, more than he ever really showed in live game action. “I’ve watched him on a daily basis, working out every single day,” Alexander said. “He has the ability to be really consistent from 17 feet. I’m not saying he’s got the 3-point level yet, but his ability to play in the pocket and face up away from the basket is there. ” Cockburn took his highest percentage of field-goal attempts away from the rim as a junior – 36.7 percent of his shots were registered as 2-point jump shots, per Hoop-Math.com – and he made a respectable-enough 42.1 percent on those shots. (He attempted just one 3 in three seasons at Illinois. It did not go in.)

“Can he shoot?” and “Can he guard away from the rim?” are not questions NBA franchises love to ask about their draftees, no matter what position they play. But in all of this focus on Cockburn’s weaknesses, there is something to be said for his strengths. He is a fairly mobile, immovable interior force who can run the floor, take his place, and not get pushed off it. He was an automatic two points deep in the lane with the ball in his hands. He drew 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes and shot 66 percent from the free-throw line. He was an excellent rebounder on both ends. He greatly improved his ability to pass, not just out of the post but making reads on rolls. At bare minimum, you can imagine him battling with NBA bigs, keeping offensive rebounds alive, and preserving possessions, not unlike some of the (albeit bouncier) game-changing performances from role-player bigs like Kevon Looney and Robert Williams in the 2022 NBA Finals.

“People are going to have questions about some of the things he can do,” Alexander said. “We didn’t ask him to do a lot of those things people have questions because he was so dominant at what he did in the box. But he doesn’t have to do all of that at the next level anyway. We stress this to our guys a lot – don’t think you’re going to hit that league and be someone they go to offensively all the time. You’re not. He can find his way there because he gets it. ”

These may be the biggest strengths in his favor: work ethic and a belief that he’ll eventually figure things out. (Oh, and his spirit, his simple enthusiastic pleasantness to be around. NBA coaches and star players like having good guys on their team. That bit won’t hurt Cockburn’s chances of making this work either; he was utterly beloved in Champaign.)

Despite the difficulties of making it in the modern league as a traditional center with limited perimeter skills, despite the incentives steering most of his center contemporaries back into the welcoming embrace of college hoops, Cockburn bet on himself this spring. “Does he question himself?” Alexander said. “No. Absolutely not. ” The bet paid off; he has already defied many projections about his draft status just to get this far. Now the hard part begins.

(Photo: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)


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