Just Like Starting Over

Most players aren’t looking for a clean slate entering Year Four. But for Dylan Windler, this Training Camp represents a reset to his NBA career.

Not many players on the Cavaliers roster have weathered more hard luck than the sharp-shooting swingman from Belmont. But he’s looking to leave all that in the past as the squad prepares for its preseason opener in Philly. 

After being selected with the 26th overall pick in the 2019 Draft – 21 spots after Darius Garland and four ahead of Kevin Porter Jr. – Windler was the only rookie to see action that summer, averaging double-figure scoring in both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas while doing the bulk of the ball-handling to boot. 

But before his rookie season could begin, the Indianapolis native suffered a lower leg injury that required surgery and the Cavaliers decided to shut him down for the season. 

The injury bug bit him again the very next season – in the team’s 2020-21 opener to be exact – when he suffered a fractured left hand after being fouled on a dunk attempt in that win against Charlotte. Windler returned to action in late January of what was essentially his rookie year and saw action in 30 of Cleveland’s next 31 games. But a left knee injury in late April that eventually required surgery put him on the shelf for the remainder of the campaign. 

Last year, Windler appeared in 50 games for the Wine & Gold – and three with the Cleveland Charge – and avoided the major injuries that derailed his first two seasons, but still was unable to string together a consistent stretch to really find his rhythm. 

This year, he comes to Camp ready for a re-start.   

Jimmy Longo/Cavs.com

“(This season), I really just want to prove why I’m here, prove why they drafted me,” said Windler. “I kind of just asked – after this last offseason – for a blank slate from everybody, to just act like it’s the first time you’ve seen me. I’m trying to recreate who I am here and just fight for everything, because I know I’m going to have to earn my minutes.”

Through his first three seasons, Windler – who led the Ohio Valley Conference in both three-point shooting and rebounding as a senior – had appeared in 81 games overall, but hasn’t yet been in the starting lineup. This season, he’s shooting for essentially the only starting position available, vying for the small forward spot. 

“There’s always going to be a limited amount of spots in this league,” said Windler. “There’s 30 teams and five starters per team, so that’s 150 guys in the whole world that can start. But I’m up for that challenge. It’s a friendly challenge, because we all want to make each other better. But at the end of the day, we’re fighting for a spot for ourselves to try to stay in this league and to be able to help our families out.”

Last year’s squad consistently cited the work they’d done in the offseason as one of the major reasons for the team’s improvement – and indications are that this summer’s been just as productive. Coach J.B. Bickerstaff spoke about what this year’s respite meant to Windler and the difference he’s seen in him. 

“Just the confidence,” said Bickerstaff. “(Dylan) hasn’t been healthy in the summer, and for him to healthy in the summer when all the work really gets done has been helpful for him. He trusts his training, he knows what he’s capable of, he makes it difficult for people to guard him because of the way he moves and his ability to shoot the ball. So, I think (the difference) is the confidence after all the work he’s put in.”

Windler agreed with that assessment, admitting that this summer is the best he’s felt since his arrival. 

“This summer is, by far, the best stretch I’ve played,” said the lithe lefty. “Coming into Training Camp, all our offseason workouts, all our offseason pick-up have all been good. The last couple years have been inconsistent with minutes and playing time. I don’t like to blame stuff on injuries, but just the way my body has felt, it’s been a rough couple seasons and lot of ups and downs – mentally and physically. Now I’m happy to say I’m past all that, and I hope to never look back.”

Mentally, it’s been a struggle for the two-sport star – one who can mash a golf ball 350 yards – trying to stay healthy and get his career into gear. And he’s thankful for the support system the Wine & Gold has provided. 

“The Cavs do a good job of helping us with those resources,” said Windler. “Doctor Pandya has been a good resource for me the past couple years when I was going through that. So, just having that close family on your side to talk you through stuff and help you through those tough times. It feels like it’s just you out there sometimes, and you’re in your own thoughts a lot. It’s nice to be able to have those people to talk to.”

Windler had his best moments early last season, going 6-for-9 from long-range over a three-game span – coming off the bench to go 3-for-3 from deep against Portland and canning 3-of-5 attempts two games later in New York. This year, as he looks to finally get into a flow, he knows that his teammates are behind him. 

“Those are the guys you play with, those are the guys you’re going to battle with and coming to work with every day,” said the 6-6, 200-pounder. “So, if they don’t believe in you, nobody’s going to believe in you. So that’s huge to have those guys stay by my side throughout this whole journey. And they’ve seen over the past couple months who I can really be and who I am, so I’m starting to get a lot of respect from my teammates and that’s what I’ve wanted all along – the respect of my teammates and to be able to play alongside them and earn their trust.”

As the Cavaliers prepare to tip off their preseason slate on Wednesday night, Windler knows that the key to his success this season – and into the future – will be getting consistent minutes. 

“That helps as a player to help find your rhythm,” said the former Belmont standout. “It can be hard, not playing two or three games in a row and then getting thrown out there for 25 minutes. But at the end of the day, it’s part of this business, it’s a part of this league. You’ve got to be ready to play at all times. And as a professional, you have to take it upon yourself to stay in the gym after practice if you’re not playing and just stay ready because you don’t know when your name is going to be called and for how long it’s going to get called. So, I’m staying ready.”

There might not be a player on Cleveland’s roster who’s more ready to go than Dylan Windler. It’s been a long, frustrating journey for the young gun, but he’s coming off his best summer as a pro and prepared to put the past behind him.