Late and great, Leilani Kapinus adds sparkle to her game

Leilani Kapinus has leaping ability and athleticism that have propelled her to the top of many coaches' wish lists. Courtesy TKO Photo Arts

Leilani Kapinus carries a toothbrush and some Colgate in her backpack. A few minutes before the start of her basketball games, she makes a mad dash for the bathroom to get her teeth sparkly and clean.

Her dentist is surely pleased, but the brushing -- part nervous habit, part superstition -- has caused her to miss many a pregame pep talk from coaches. It has also inspired a nickname she doesn't particularly like: "Late-lani."

On the court, Kapinus, a 5-foot-10 junior guard who plays for James Madison Memorial (Madison, Wisconsin) has impeccable timing. Whether she's blocking shots, grabbing rebounds or sprinting up court, Kapinus always seems to be in the right place at the right time. So much so, in fact, that she has moved up to No. 9 in the revised espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2020 class.

But being punctual has never been her strong suit. Sometimes in practice, Kapinus said, she will be in the locker room getting changed and will get "sidetracked" listening to music. By the time she makes her way to the gym floor, she'll hear the "Late-lani" catcalls.

"I'm getting better at being on time," Kapinus said. "But I'm not going to lie: I'm not all the way there yet."

James Madison Memorial coach Marques Flowers described Kapinus as a "happy-go-lucky" kid.

"She was chronically late when she first got here. She'd come strolling in to practice," Flowers said. "But she gets it now. We don't call her 'Late-lani' too much anymore."

Even so, there are other quirks to Kapinus' fun-loving personality. Teammate Liliana Garcia recalled one hilarious incident.

"Leilani hurt her knee," Garcia said. "And she said, 'I think I have a concussion on my knee.'"

Assistant Stacy Tobin has a similar story.

"We played this triple-overtime game," Tobin said. "And after the second OT, she said, 'Coach, this is sudden death now, right?'"

The malaprops are just another reason teammates love having Kapinus around. She averaged 14.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.1 blocks this past season, earning defensive player of the year honors for her conference.

Flowers first spotted her during a youth-league tryout when Kapinus was in fourth grade.

"She was this little girl with curly hair -- a ball of energy racing up and down court," Flowers said. "She had no clue how to be a basketball player, but I knew she was going to be a Division I athlete in something.

"I went home that night and crossed my fingers that I could convince her to fall in love with basketball."

That's exactly what happened.

Kapinus runs track -- she competes in the high jump -- but she's a basketball player at her core. She has scholarship offers from numerous colleges, including Minnesota, Michigan State, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, LSU, Indiana, Arizona State, Arizona, Ohio State and Louisville.

Nic Levy, her AAU coach with the Wisconsin Flight Elite, said Connecticut has called about her as well.

College coaches love her raw athleticism -- she can grab the rim with one hand, and she has a goal to be the first sub-6-foot female player to dunk in a game -- and her intangibles are off the charts.

Earlier this year, she injured her right knee during the last game of her high school season and was forced to sit out three-plus months of AAU ball.

Even though she couldn't play, she still went to practice every day. That's dedication, considering that she lives in Madison -- two hours away from her AAU team's gym in Oshkosh.

New to the Wisconsin Flight Elite this year, Kapinus wanted to make sure that by the time she got healthy, she knew the offense and was ready to go.

"That sums up what kind of kid she is," Levy said.

Levy and Flowers see Kapinus as a wing in college. But Kapinus prefers point guard because she likes to distribute the ball to her teammates.

Defense seems to come naturally to her, but her offense is developing quickly.

"She was the heart and soul of our team this year," Levy said. "She is a freakish rebounder, just rips them down. She plays wing for us, but when she gets a rebound, she goes. That's where she thrives."

Flowers has given Kapinus man-to-man defensive assignments that range from an extremely quick 5-foot-2 point guard to a 6-foot-2 post such as Wisconsin-Green Bay recruit Julia Hartwig of Janesville Parker.

"Leilani's close-out speed is remarkable, and it catches people by surprise," Flowers said. "Defensively, she's a game-wrecker."

Flowers said Kapinus will own every major school record by the time her prep career ends.

"She's the most talented girl we've ever had," Flowers said, "not only at Memorial but maybe even in all of Madison.

"Leilani is a special person from a great family. I have two daughters in elementary school, and Leilani's a great role model for them."