SALT LAKE CITY -- Nerlens Noel got the extended playing time he had been eyeing this season. He clocked 22 minutes on Thursday, more than doubling his season-high of 10, against the Jazz.
“I think I played alright,” Noel said after the Sixers’ 100-83 loss (see Instant Replay). “I think I should have finished a little more around the basket. But I think I went out there and did what I had to do.”
Noel scored 14 points (6 for 10 from the field), including six in the third quarter. He grabbed six rebounds, picked off a steal and committed two fouls.
Noel was expected to see an increase in playing time in the absence of Joel Embiid, who sat out on the first leg of the back-to-back set. Jahlil Okafor’s early foul trouble also impacted Noel’s role. Even though Brett Brown intended to utilize Noel in four- or five-minute segments, standard for a player working his way back on the Sixers, Noel ended up logging eight straight in the first quarter.
“Fatigue got the better of Nerlens at times, but he’s getting a lot better,” Brown said. “He’s getting more comfortable with play calls, and I thought he did a decent job.”
The Sixers have been keeping a close eye on Noel’s level of fitness. He missed the first 23 games of the season and their crammed schedule has not allowed for a lot of practice time to work on conditioning. Brown kept that in mind when managing his minutes.
“I think I went through some stretches where I was able to keep it up, especially in this altitude,” Noel said. “Just getting up and down, I think Coach did a good job of keeping an eye on me.”
After showing signs of fatigue in the first half, Noel looked more energized once he got into a rhythm. He set out to play physical and be active at the rim against Utah’s towering bigs.
“Nerlens was Nerlens [at the basket],” Brown said. “When you say what is your identifiable NBA skill, it’s clear that he’s an A-plus athlete that’s got a bounce. He can jump twice as well as anybody in the NBA. I thought his active hands and mobility at the back of things started to remind us of what we saw last year.”
Last season, Noel ranked third on the team with 29.3 minutes per game. Having him on the court for more than a few sporadic minutes was a welcome sign to the players.
"It was good to see him energized, do his thing," Okafor said. “He’s been such a great teammate to us, so it was good to see him out there."
The Sixers needed a significant minutes contribution from Noel against the Jazz. In addition to being without Embiid, backup center Richaun Holmes is not with the team because he is following the NBA’s concussion protocol.
Noel's presence helped the Sixers carry a four-point lead into the fourth quarter before the team was outscored 30-9 in the final frame of the defeat. Still, the big man was glad he was given an extended look to show what he can do again on the court.
“I’m just thankful,” Noel said. “Coach gave me an opportunity and I wanted to go out there and play my game. That’s what my focus was the whole night. Whenever I was in there, I wanted to contribute to the team’s winning efforts. When I wasn’t, I wanted to support my teammates to the best of my ability.”
Noel has now played 61 minutes this season, one-third of them coming on Thursday. His performance against the Jazz is a step in the right direction for the big man, who is eager to stay out on the court.
"You don’t just click your heels and come in and play NBA basketball; it takes time," Brown said. "You’ve got to get a condition base. You need to have an awareness of what people are running. He’s doing a great job of doing that. Because of that, you could see signs, great signs tonight from Nerlens."