Dosunmu, Cockburn return to Illini after mixed draft projections

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Jonathan Bonaguro

Freshman Kofi Cockburn embraces Sophomore Ayo Dosunmu during the match against Iowa at State Farm Center in Champaign, Illinois on Sunday, March 8..

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

When Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn walked off the court on March 8 after a win over then-ranked No. 18 Iowa, nobody had any idea what the following months would bring. The season ended abruptly a few days later, and people began to wonder if they had seen the last of Dosunmu and Cockburn in Champaign.

But after a long offseason of waiting, both Dosunmu and Cockburn withdrew from the NBA Draft. The return of the duo and a top 20 recruiting class will make the Illini one of the best, if not the best, teams in a loaded Big Ten. The buzz surrounding Dosunmu seemed to be that he was focused on the NBA Draft. Dosunmu elected not to test the waters after a strong freshman season. Then he came back for “unfinished business” and helped lead Illinois to their first 20-win season since 2016-17.

Despite scoring 16.6 points per game and being named First-Team All-Big Ten, draft projections on Dosunmu were split. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie had Dosunmu going No. 50, while CBS had him going undrafted. He sits at No. 80 on ESPN’s big board and No. 61 on Sport Illustrated draft expert Jeremy Woo’s board. Dosunmu was one of the 60 or so players who received an NBA combine invite, per Adam Zagoria.

“The NBA is going to be there,” said Dosunmu in a Zoom call Sunday afternoon. “I’m not chasing the NBA, I’m chasing greatness. I felt that this was the best decision for me to chase that greatness and chase perfection.”

Climbing into the first round of next year’s draft will not be an easy task. Dosunmu excelled at the rim last season, but he’ll need to improve as a shooter. His 29% mark from deep was a six percent drop off from his freshman season. His assist to turnover ratio worsened as well.

However, Dosnumu has never played with a true point guard like Andre Curbelo before. The incoming Illini freshman from Long Island should alleviate pressure for Dosunmu, allowing him to play off the ball and help the rising junior get open looks. Nonetheless, cracking the first round in the NBA Draft next year will be tough.

“I think the odds of him playing his way into the first round next year might be tough, barring a huge improvement via shooting or one of those things,” Woo said. “It’s gonna be tough for guys who are coming back to fight for position when it seems like it’s gonna be a strong close of one-and-done players.”

Cockburn’s decision to declare for the draft came as a surprise. He had an impressive first year but is not seen as a potential draft pick. Woo and ESPN have him unranked while The Athletic slotted him in at 96. He was one of the 104 players who received the most votes to attend a potential combine. Woo believes returning to school was the right option.

“It’s hard to be a guy at his size unless you’re really really skilled or really really athletic to make it happen,” Woo said. “I don’t know if he’s either one of those things. He’s a good player and he’s been effective because of his sheer size, but I don’t know if he is quite special enough in any one category for me to be like ‘that’s a guy I want to draft.’”

At times this offseason it appeared the Illini may lose both Dosunmu and Cockburn, halting the progress the program had made. But the dynamic duo is back and the Illini will have their best team since they made the national championship game in 2005.

“I want to win; I want to be in the same conversation as those greats,” Dosunmu said. “I want to put Illinois in a position to win a national championship and contend for a national championship.”