FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - When Marcin Gortat entered the NBA, Dwight Howard, coming off his first All-Star Game appearance, was there to greet the 23-year-old rookie and take him under his wing.
They were together for the first your years of Gortat's professional career.
"He definitely made me better," Gortat said. "I was such a fortunate guy to have this guy on the team. It was just awesome to be with him."
As much on the court help Gortat received from Howard, he received just as much, if not more, off the court.
It's why now, entering his seventh season, Gortat feels a sense of responsibility to do the same for his fellow big man teammates Alex Len, Viacheslav Kravtsov and Miles Plumlee.
Of course helping and teaching is one thing, standing aside to let one of those three supplant him as the 2013-14 starting center is another.
"Being a backup for so many years, it was a pleasure to come to practice and try to beat up on Dwight Howard. Now the situation turn around. Now I've got three young studs coming to practice to beat me up. I know how it is," Gortat said.
"Listen, we all fighting for bread. We all fighting for milk. I'm not going to let anybody take my job. I'm going to come here and I'm going to fight these guys, just like I'm fighting everybody else. I never backed down from Dwight. Trust me, I'm not going to back down from none of these three guys."
Len was drafted with the fifth overall pick in June while Kravtsov and Plumlee were both acquired in summer trades.
"We did huge, huge step towards better future," Gortat said of all the team's offseason moves. "I believe that in two, three, four years we might be a really good team. Right now, we have really inexperienced team. We have a lot of young guys, but still we can compete. We can play hard."
Gortat entered training camp in great shape, having spent the summer playing for his country's national team. He averaged 10.1 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks for Poland at EuroBasket 2013 in Slovenia, showing he's completely healed from a Lisfranc sprain in his right foot that sidelined him for the final 21 games last season.
This season, though, is a big one for Gortat.
"We all know what I am right now and we all know what's going to happen probably," he said at media day Monday.
Gortat, the highest-paid player on the team at 7.7 million dollars, is entering the final year of his contract. He fully expects to be traded.
"Everybody is anticipating, everybody knows that -- this is just a smart business move. I mean it's obvious," he said. "Having three young guys on the team, you're building the whole team and you have the only one vet center on the team playing, so it's obvious move."
Perhaps not so obvious to the general manager.
"We're not actively shopping him. We're not trying to move him," Ryan McDonough said Tuesday. "His opinion is his opinion. He's obviously one of our better players. We hope he plays well for us."
Whether or not he does get traded, two things are certain.
One, Gortat will be the subject of constant trade speculation and rumor. "I quite honestly, seriously don't care about that. As long as I'm going to be playing in NBA, I'm fine with that," he said.
And two, Gortat will do his part to guide Len, Kravtsov and Plumlee through the early stages of their NBA careers. The mentee becomes the mentor.
"I have to be the guy who's going help them out, try to help them as much as possible, teach them, try to be the guy who can help them off the court also," Gortat said. "And obviously, none of these guys are going to pay (while) with me wherever we're going to go."