Dylan Winder has not had the season he envisioned.
He injured his ankle prior to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first preseason game and wasn’t able to get cleared for action until late February. What felt like a season he could come out and prove his spot in the league, instead seems like another missed opportunity.
This has been an all too familiar feeling for Windler. He missed the entire season after being drafted due to a stress fracture in his knee. He broke his wrist in his pro-debut in 2020. Last season, he played in 50 games, but still missed time due to anther knee injury.
These constant setbacks aren’t something Windler dealt with prior to turning pro.
“It’s been tough,” Windler said. “I’ve never experienced it in my life before. You know, I never missed games in high school or college. You don’t really know how to deal with those type of injuries until you go through them yourself. You see other guys hurt their knees, go through these major surgeries and you don’t really understand it fully until you go through it yourself.”
“You understand the struggles that you got to go through to get back on the court and how long it takes to get back to feeling yourself and you know, it’s a consistent uphill battle along the way. So, you know, I think it makes a lot of players better once they get through it. Just mentally facing that adversity. You know, I’ve had a lot of really, really rough days, weeks months, since I’ve been here in Cleveland.”
The injury at the start of the season might’ve been the most difficult for him considering how he was looking at the start of training camp according to Cleveland Charge assistant coach D.J. Ham.
“When we first got here for training camp in September Dylan was playing out of his mind,” Ham said. “Like, some of the best basketball I’ve seen. He was shooting with confidence, defending at a high level. Everything was clicking and trending towards him having an impact and cracking the Cavaliers’ rotation.”
Facing trials can allow you to learn who you truly are.
“You know, I don’t listen anything outside of what I do day to day. I go to the facility, I just kind of focus on what’s at task,” Windler says. “The mentality for me, it’s just been taking it day by day. Just do everything I can to get back on the court as fast as I can. Nothing else really matters at the end of the day. So it’s just a matter of doing everything you can to get back on the court.”
“It says a lot about his resiliency,” Charge head coach Mike Gerrity said. “It says a lot about his character and strength to just continue to push through and preserve when things get difficult.”
Getting to the point where you can trust your body and freely play basketball again can be difficult.
“The biggest piece of it, in my opinion, is the mental side of things,” Ham said. “Trainers will tell you, ‘okay, because you played 22 minutes the night before, you can only play 18 minutes because you got a minutes restriction.’ Dealing with that in the back of your mind and just being conscious of overthinking. ‘Okay, I can’t plant too hard here or I can’t make this explosive move or I got to be careful when I’m coming over to help.’ So, getting over those mental hurdles has helped him a lot and now he’s playing more free and in my opinion, fearless.”
Windler has begun to show glimpses of the player the Cavs were hoping to see after his incredible start in training camp. He’s notched 20 or more points in three-straight games for the Charge since being allowed to play over 30 minutes in a game. This includes putting up 24 points and 26 points in back-to-back nights in must-win games for the Charge to get into the playoffs.
“To be able to finally feel and play like myself again, is just very rewarding,” Windler said.
“I’m finally feeling like myself again. I’ve obviously been playing for three or four weeks now. But the hamstring is one of those things that kind of lingers and so it’s tough. You don’t really trust it and just kind of always feel it. So the last week or so I’d say I’m finally getting over that hump and feeling like myself again. I’s a joy to play when you’re not dealing with injuries.”
“He stayed the course the entire time,” Ham said. “There’s a certain point where you gotta take the training wheels off and say, ‘You know what? Forget it, I’m just going to go for it.’ Just going out there and mentally saying ‘I’m just gonna play my game, play free and do stuff that I would normally do.’ Just play instinctual and not stop yourself or be hesitant. He’s mentally getting over those hurdles. He’s finding that confidence and fearlessness to play free.”
Windler likely won’t have an opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation with only six games remaining in the regular season. That hasn’t discouraged him from being ready if his number is called.
“I feel great. I’m ready for any moment [J.B. Bickerstaff] puts me in,” he says. “I feel really confident in my game right now. My body’s feeling good, so I’ll be ready to go if he throws me in.”