After Choosing Basketball Over Golf, Dylan Windler Takes Charitable Talent to the NBA
When he was 17, Dylan Windler had a difficult decision to make. Would he continue to spend his summers on the golf course? Or take his love of (and knack for) sports indoors to pursue basketball more seriously?
Each path offered its own potential. Dylan had shown tantalizing talent as a golfer while competing in junior tournaments weekend after weekend through middle school, and his first two years at Perry Meridian High School in his hometown of Indianapolis. He was nearly a scratch golfer in high school, went to the Indiana state championship as a freshman, and won local, county and conference events along the way.
Back then, he just might’ve held his own on the course in a swinging quartet alongside his favorite golfers: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas.
“My freshman and sophomore years of high school, I actually decided to go with the golf,” Dylan tells CloseUp360, “because I thought that was something that I would be better at in the long run, that I could play in college.”
But there was something he just couldn’t shake about basketball.
Sure, the sport is religion in Indiana, and the sheer ubiquity of hoops in driveways across the state is impossible to ignore. And yes, Dylan’s frame—then 6’5”, now closer to 6’8” in shoes—would seemingly be better suited to throwing down dunks, pulling up for jump shots, grabbing rebounds and defending across positions than swinging drivers and guiding in putts.
Still, it was the nature of the sports themselves, above all else, that helped to swing the decision in Dylan’s mind.
“I like being able to work with a team and having guys around you that you're all working towards the same goal,” he says. “In golf, it's a little different. It's more of an individual sport. I'm a super competitive person, so I like to work with others.”
Five years later, Dylan isn’t angling to be the next Tiger, though he was stoked to see the golfing great come back to win the Masters earlier this spring. Instead, he’s busy preparing for the NBA draft, with an eye towards becoming the first player to be picked out of Belmont University in nearly half a century.
Dylan Windler was almost a scratch golfer before he chose to pursue basketball more seriously following his junior year of high school. L to R: cousin Andrew Vane, stepfather Steve Eickman, Dylan, uncle Mike Very, cousin Bryce Very and uncle Rob Connor. (Courtesy of Dylan Windler)
Truth be told, Dylan’s choice wasn’t always binary. Growing up, he played (and excelled at) baseball, tennis, soccer, fishing and skiing (both water and snow), in addition to basketball and golf. Whatever could get him outdoors—and get those competitive juices flowing—he was sure to try.
“As a kid, I pretty much played anything that I could get my hands on,” he says.
Ultimately, though, basketball captured Dylan’s imagination the most. It certainly helped that when he was in middle school, nearby Butler University made consecutive trips to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2011.
“That was super close to home for me,” he says, “so I was always cheering for them.”
Closer, still, was the Bulldogs’ star player: a scrawny but skilled kid from Brownsburg named Gordon Hayward. For Dylan, watching him shoot and handle the ball at his size was like peering into the future through a crystal ball.
“Even just similarities in body composition and how he plays,” Dylan says. “He wasn't always that big, kind of went through the same process that I'm going through.”
Beyond that inspiration, Dylan had plenty of support on the court from his family. His mother, Karen, and older sister, Corey, had both excelled at basketball in high school, though neither played in college.
Dylan started to find his stride on the court—and reconsider his long-term sporting options—during his junior year in high school. Aided by the mental toughness he’d gained from the solitude of the golf course, he averaged 13.1 points and 5.2 rebounds in 2013-14.
“That kind of just turned my mind,” he says.
So Dylan sat down with his mom to discuss his future. As much as he wanted to continue with both basketball and golf, “I knew I couldn’t do both,” he says. He’d shown potential in basketball at Perry Meridian, but that wasn’t enough to earn him even a single college scholarship offer. To get that kind of attention, he would have to give up golf, so he could spend his summer playing with and against top prep talent on the AAU circuit.
“So I decided to try to get on an AAU team,” he says.
Dylan tried out for Indiana Elite, whose NBA alumni included Eric Gordon, the Plumlee brothers and the Zeller brothers. Dylan landed a spot on the squad for the spring and summer of 2014, alongside Kyle Guy, who would matriculate to the University of Virginia, and Ryan Cline, who took his talents to Purdue University.
“I was like the seventh or eighth man honestly,” Dylan says, “so I didn't play a whole lot.”
That is, until the second weekend of July. A handful of Indiana Elite’s top players, including Kyle, were invited to Chicago for the adidas Unrivaled camp. Dylan and the rest of his remaining teammates would stay in Indianapolis to compete at the adidas Invitational.
“I started the whole weekend and I had a really good showing for myself,” he says.
Good enough to garner double-digit offers from mid-major programs.
“I picked up all my offers in one weekend,” he says, “so it was super fast recruiting for me.”
By the time he returned to Perry Meridian for his senior year—during which he led all players in his state classification in points (27.3 per game) and rebounds (10.2)—Dylan had long since committed to play college hoops at Belmont.
Dylan chose Belmont out of 10-15 offers from mid-major schools. (Courtesy of Belmont University)
Dylan’s four years in Nashville followed a familiar pattern. As a freshman, he served as a role player off the bench on a team that finished in first place in the Ohio Valley Conference, but fell short of the 2016 NCAA tournament. During his sophomore year, he more than doubled his scoring average while settling in as a full-time starter. By his junior year, he had emerged as a bona fide college star, leading Belmont in minutes (35.4 per game), points (17.3), rebounds (9.3) and three-point percentage (.426).
Once again, Dylan’s mind turned.
“I always dreamt of playing, and I looked forward to trying to play and make a living out of the sport,” he says. “But I don't think it really sunk in for me that I could play at this high of a level until probably my junior year of college.”
Dylan carried that confidence into his senior season. He averaged a double-double (21.3 points, 10.8 rebounds), including an eye-opening 35-point, 11-rebound performance against the University of Maryland in this year’s NCAA tournament. For his efforts, he was selected to the All-OVC for a second time, alongside Murray State star and likely top-three pick Ja Morant.
As much as Dylan excelled in basketball for the Bruins, he did much more than win games during his time at Belmont. As a student, he compiled a 3.74 grade-point average, and was named to the OVC Commissioner’s Honor Roll three times and an Academic All-American twice.
During each of his four years on campus, he represented the men’s basketball team on Belmont’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. That experience put him in a strong position when, as a senior, he came across an opportunity to serve as the student-athlete liaison on the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Competition Committee.
“[Former] coach [Rick] Byrd told me about the position, so I applied for it, sent in a couple of resumes and stuff like that,” he says. “And I ended up getting picked for it.”
In meetings alongside the likes of college stars-turned-broadcasters Jay Bilas and Clark Kellogg, Dylan discussed potential rule changes, from advancing the ball and shortening the shot clock to adjusting the width of the lane and lengthening the three-point line—the last of which the NCAA is currently considering.
“Being able to see that stuff come into effect, it's really cool,” Dylan says. “Being behind the scenes and having talked through all that stuff and debating it, I'm all about that.”
In some respects, that was far from the most impactful thing Dylan did during his college days. Towards the end of his junior year, he joined a group of athletes from Belmont on a trip to Nakuru, Kenya, where they spent time at an orphanage through Streets of Hope, an organization devoted to caring for children forced to fend for themselves on the street.
There, Dylan got to exercise his knack for all sports again. This time, though, he did what the kids wanted, be it tossing a frisbee or kicking around a soccer ball.
“Just being able to interact with them and see that joy in their face, it was definitely life-changing,” he says. “You can tell everything that they've been through, and having that little opportunity to be able to put through school and provide with a place to live, all the little things bring them so much joy over there. So it's very eye-opening to see how different some people live.”
That trip came the year after Dylan went on a similar trip to Nicaragua with an organization called Hope Road, with which he plans to remain involved as he moves onto the pros. Eventually, he aims to start a foundation of his own. And though he hasn’t pinpointed its mission, he knows he would want it to help spread positivity through the community back in Indianapolis.
Of all the extracurriculars Dylan did while he was at Belmont, though, he reflects most fondly on his two years as a mentor for Best Buddies, which partners with the Special Olympics in Nashville. He and his roommate, Belmont guard Kevin McClain, grew particularly close to a kid named Chris, with whom they hung out and built a friendship while taking him to Best Buddies events.
“We got to talk to him all the time. We'd be on FaceTime with him,” Dylan says. “You could just tell how much joy that brought into his life. And it kind of reflects that same joy back to me getting to see somebody that doesn't always get the same opportunities as you, just to be able to be that friend for him.”
For Dylan, the impetus to give back came from his faith.
“I think a big part of living as a Christian is just giving back, whether that's in your local community or getting abroad and just kind of seeing things in a new light,” he says. “It can always be either life-changing or give you a different type of perspective on things.”
That Dylan so often shared in these activities with his Bruins teammates was no coincidence. He was part of what he calls “a really close-knit group” at Belmont, one that shared in Bible study and community work.
“We pushed each other to become better people every day,” he says.
Last spring, Dylan visited Nakuru, Kenya, with Streets of Hope. (Courtesy of Dylan Windler)
This spring, Dylan’s closest companions have been his potential competitors for spots in the upcoming NBA draft. Since signing with Priority Sports and Entertainment, he’s moved to Chicago to work out with, play against and live alongside college teammates of Kyle’s (Virginia’s Ty Jerome) and Ryan’s (Purdue’s Carsen Edwards), as well as Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.
“I'm fortunate to have a good group of guys here to work with,” Dylan says. “Some people are different than me. Some people like to work out by themselves, they like to be super individualized, get that individualized work in the gym. But for me, I think it's always good to be able to compete with guys. I think that brings out the best of you and everyone else in the gym.”
Though Dylan opted not to scrimmage at the NBA Draft Combine, he’s gotten in plenty of run at the Quest Multisport facility, where the combine took place, and where he and his fellow Priority clients have been busy training. He’ll spend the ensuing weeks criss-crossing the country, auditioning for teams and hoping he leaves a good enough impression to be one of the 60 players taken in the June draft.
“If you don't hit shots or things don't go your way, I'm still confident that I'm going to be playing basketball no matter what happens,” he says. “So I try not to stress over the little things. Like, it's not do or die when it comes to just all the little things.”
And if, for whatever reason, he doesn’t realize his dream of playing in the NBA at the end of this process? Well, there’s always golf.
Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.