SALT LAKE CITY - Nerlens Noel sat in a chair at Vivint Smart Home Arena with ice packs on his knees and politely answered questions.
The 76ers' third-string center, however, wasn't giving out fist bumps over the news that he would play extended minutes Thursday against the Utah Jazz. He could play 20 minutes or more in the absence of power forward/center Joel Embiid, who will miss the game to rest his right foot. Noel has averaged 7.8 minutes in five appearances this season.
"I really am focused on staying even keel and making sure I'm taking care of everything I've got to take care of to be ready," Noel said.
The 6-foot-11, 232-pounder is aware that his playing time probably will decrease when Embiid returns for Friday's game in Denver against the Nuggets. And Noel realizes that there's no guarantee he'll log a lot of minutes even though coach Brett Brown said his playing time would increase.
"Never really knowing how many minutes you are going to get is a little different," said Noel, who averaged 30 minutes in his first two seasons. "So I try to prepare the same for every game, whether it's five or 15."
But on Thursday, he'll back up Jahlil Okafor at center. Power forward Ersan Ilyasova will replace Embiid in the starting lineup. Noel and Okafor are the only available centers on this West Coast trip. Richaun Holmes (concussion) remained home. Okafor has started at center while Embiid got the nod at power forward in the last six games.
Thursday will mark the 10th game the 7-2, 275-pound center has missed and his first since Dec. 12 against the Detroit Pistons. He was sidelined that game with inflammation in his right elbow. However, the other nine were scheduled off days in back-to-back situations.
The Sixers (7-23) decided to carefully manage Embiid's workload and the stress on his foot during games and practices. The third overall pick of the 2014 draft sat out the previous two seasons after surgeries to repair the navicular bone in his foot. The team is exercising caution by sitting him on back-to-back nights.
"My body has been kind of tired," Embiid said. "So that played a part of making that decision [to rest Thursday as opposed to Friday]. . . . I can get some rest, but I'll be fine."
The Sixers last played in a game on Monday. They were off Tuesday before resuming practice Wednesday.
From the standpoint of maximizing the chances to win games, having Embiid rest Thursday and play against the Nuggets (13-18 as of Wednesday) makes sense.
The Jazz (19-13) are one game behind the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Northwest Division standings. Even with Embiid, the Sixers would be hard-pressed to defeat Utah. He finished with 14 points and nine rebounds in a 25-point loss to the Jazz at Wells Fargo Center on Nov. 7.
Plus, the Sixers also will be without their best perimeter defender in shooting guard Gerald Henderson (left hip pain) on Thursday and Friday. His absence also hurts the team's chance to pull off an upset victory against the Jazz.
However, the Sixers have a legitimate chance to win Friday. Embiid could play a major role in helping his team avenge an eight-point loss to Denver on Dec. 5.
Thursday will be all about Noel's extended playing time. The most he has played in a game this season has been 10 minutes, 23 seconds. Noel was only on the court for 3:21 in Monday's loss to the Sacramento Kings.
"I see it as a good opportunity for myself to just go out there and showcase and be able to play my game and get up and down the court," Noel said, "just get back to whatever the minutes are. I'll be able to just play natural and just play my game,"
Noel missed the first 23 games with inflamed tissue in his left knee. Then he was sidelined another game with a left-ankle sprain.
The former Kentucky standout is averaging career lows of 4.2 points and 2.0 rebounds because of limited playing time. However, he's shooting a career-best 57.1 percent from the field.
"So I know what I've got to come in here and do," Noel said. "I've got to take it step by step, bring myself along slowly as I play through the game tomorrow and just stay mentally calm and play my game."