During his lone year playing for the Georgia Highlands College basketball team last season, Ty Cockfield could count how many people were watching in the stands.
It was a far cry from his days as a standout at Johnson High, from which he graduated in 2015 after spurring the team to an undefeated regular season and Class 4A state quarterfinal appearance. And it certainly paled in comparison to his freshman year at Stetson University, whose average attendance was about 800 people, per NCAA statistics.
“You go from sold-out games in high school to barely any people in the stands,” Cockfield said. “You can count on your hands how many people are watching. But you just have to focus and work to do everything you can to get the job done.”
Cockfield’s job — for the moment, at least — is done.
The Gainesville native announced his commitment to Arkansas State on Sunday, completing his return to the Division I level after transferring from Stetson. Cockfield said he also received offers from Michigan, Virginia and Memphis, among other prominent programs.
Still, the guard decided to continue his career with the Red Wolves while on the plane home from his weekend visit in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
“My re-recruitment, I guess you could call it, has been hectic,” Cockfield said. “I had offers from high-major schools, and I had never seen nothing like that. It felt like it all happened overnight. But with Arkansas State, I just felt the love. I felt how real and how serious they were about my game and about me.
“When I went on the visit, the culture and love they showed me, and vision they had for the program, that’s what drew me in.”
It’s the reward for stepping all the way down to junior college, a difficult transition for any player who has experienced significant Division I minutes. But it was a necessary move for Cockfield to stay on track for his ultimate goal of playing in the NBA.
“He handled it like a warrior,” said former Johnson boys basketball coach Jeff Steele, who now serves in that role at Lumpkin County High. “He got his grind on, and he knew what he was striving for. … He took the JuCo road and made the most of it.”
That came as no surprise to Steele, who said he’d always been drawn to Cockfield’s “blue-collar work ethic.”
The 6-foot-1 guard used that trait to propel the Knights to great heights during his three seasons at Johnson. He was a two-time selection to The Times’ All-Area first team, and he earned first team All-State honors for leading the Knights on a historic run during his senior season.
Behind a much improved 3-point shot, Cockfield averaged 28 points, 4.4 assists and four rebounds per game as Johnson began the year 29-0. But the Knights suffered a quarterfinal loss against eventual state champion Jonesboro — oddly enough, the name of the Arkansas city where Cockfield will soon continue playing basketball.
“As a team, we were one of the best to ever come through Johnson,” Cockfield said. “We had so much love and brotherhood, it was like a big family.”
For all his success, Cockfield’s first recruitment process didn’t generate as much interest as his second. He chose Stetson over Cleveland State and Florida A&M but didn’t remain there long.
Despite posting per-game averages of 16.6 minutes and 7.1 points as a freshman, Cockfield said he just “wasn’t a good fit” in Stetson’s system. As fate would have it, an old Hall County basketball buddy swayed him to transfer back to his home state.
Kyvon Davenport, a 2015 East Hall graduate, had gone straight to Georgia Highlands College in Rome and convinced Cockfield of the benefits of junior college. It wasn’t all talk: Davenport himself committed to Memphis in April.
Cockfield found his groove, averaging 16.6 points per game on a 49.4 percent shooting clip that included a mark of 42.3 percent from beyond the arc. He topped 20 points in nine games during his sophomore season, while adding 4.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists a night.
“I remember my wife and I went to watch him at Georgia Highlands maybe four or five times,” Steele said. “I texted him after one game that he was ‘the total package.’ He was even defending better.”
His performance caught the attention of major colleges, but Cockfield ultimately settled on Arkansas State. The Sun Belt school has an entirely new staff fronted by first-year coach Mike Balado, who spent the previous five seasons as an assistant at Louisville under two-time national champion coach Rick Pitino.
Despite Balado’s inexperience as a head coach, Cockfield said he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to play for a guy who has helped mold numerous NBA players.
Especially not after spending a year toiling in the anonymity of junior college.
“It was tough,” Cockfield said. “I like to call it ‘getting out the mud.’ It was a constant grind every day. You think about getting back to Division I every day, but you have to do this to get back there. There was heavy pressure, but pressure makes diamonds.
“The life I’m living right now is beautiful.”