Jun. 27, 2013 @ 06:03 PM

The fact that he had no guarantee of being a first-round pick in the NBA Draft kept Mason Plumlee at Duke for the last two seasons.

At the same time, the way he feels about his game now, as opposed to the last two springs, is why he said he’s best prepared to become a professional basketball player this time around.

Tonight, Plumlee is solidly projected to be a first-round pick when the NBA holds its draft (7 p.m., ESPN) at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The 7-foot, 238-pound Plumlee points to his body of work at Duke last season, where he averaged 17 points and 9.9 rebounds, as evidence he’ll succeed at basketball’s highest level.

“I was the best big man in college basketball, according to some people,” Plumlee said. “I felt I was according to myself. I was very confident going though the (pre-draft) workouts.”

That confidence came with time and accomplishment.

Plumlee considered turning pro after his sophomore and junior seasons, when he received feedback from the league on his abilities. In 2010-11, Plumlee’s sophomore season, he averaged 7.2 points and 8.4 rebounds. In 2011-12, his junior year, he averaged 11.1 points and 9.2 rebounds.

But last season, Plumlee was a second-team all-American after averaging 17.1 points and 9.9 rebounds per game as Duke went 30-6 and reached the NCAA Tournament regional final.

While he always felt his talent could lead him to such a season, the fact that he’s done it maximizes his confidence heading into the NBA.

“I think it was the first year where I put up solid numbers,” Plumlee said. “I was counted on to be the offensive focus. Having done it gives you more confidence. We played everyone this year. I played against a lot of good bigs.”

Three of those players Plumlee and Duke faced are also projected to hear their names called in the first round tonight. That list includes Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, Maryland’s Alex Len and Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng.

“I think Mason, him coming back has helped him as a player,” said Duke associate head coach Steve Wojciechowski, who coaches the Blue Devils’ interior players. “Besides the experience of playing in big-time games, him being a guy that had to be the focal point of a team and carry on the leadership responsibilities that we asked him to carry. He got better. His last year was his best year. Guys at that level, guys want guys who are going to help them win right away. Mason is a guy who can contribute right away at the NBA level.”

Scouts like Plumlee’s rebounding ability, as he averaged just shy of 10 rebounds per game over his final two seasons at Duke. His athleticism and ability to run the floor are also impressive as are his skills around the rim on offense.

But something that makes him that kind of player now is also looked at as a drawback. Plumlee improved his skills over the last two years, but that means he’s entering the draft at 23 years old.

The interior players projected to go before him in the draft – Noel, Len, Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams, Georgetown’s Otto Porter, Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynk — are all younger than Plumlee.

Plumlee’s age is seen as a negative in NBA circles since it shortens his potential career. He;s also heard scouting reports that say he hasn’t established enough skill to go with his age.

“I read one that said `He’s 23 and has no skill,’” Plumlee said. “I averaged 17 a game.

“I managed to put the ball in the hole. I don’t know how people come up with that. All I can do is when I get on the floor, I just played to win. If I wasn’t skilled I wouldn’t have put up the numbers I did. It’s not like we played in the West Coast Conference. We played the best schedule out there.”

Plumlee’s spent the last month jetting around the country meeting with teams to display his skills. He worked out for 11 NBA teams — Dallas, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Phoenix, Utah, Portland, Minnesota, Oklahoma City and Chicago.

All of those teams, with the exception of Phoenix and Washington, have picks between 9 and 20 tonight.

“I can see myself going anywhere between 10 and 20,” Plumlee said. “That’s the consensus I’ve gotten back.”

Having played four years for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Plumlee carries a reputation for hard work and smart, unselfish play. Those traits, with his physical skills, have Wojciechowski confident Plumlee will have a successful NBA career.

“He’s got all that stuff,” Wojciechowski said. “He’s a winner. He’s a good team guy. He’s mature, he’s responsible, he’s tough and he wants to win. Anybody who was around Mason knows he’s an example for hot things should be done.”