When Mars baseball coach Jason Thompson boarded the bus for road games or sat down with his players at a meal during the 2021 season, the scene always was the same:

The boys were on their phones, playing meaningless games.

JJ Wetherholt’s pursuits were different. If he wasn’t replaying his last at-bat in his head, he was playing chess on his phone.

“He was always, always focused,” Thompson said. “He understands the process. It’s not just what you do at practice, not just what you do at the games. It’s really what you’re doing with all the other time.

“He was already locked in as a young man. He just sees things at a higher level.”

And so it is three years later, Wetherholt may be one of the first players selected in the MLB Draft on July 14. Outlets MLB.com, Baseball America and Perfect Game have made that projection.

First, however, there is the major matter of the junior shortstop concluding his career at West Virginia with the Big 12 Tournament, starting at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas. The No. 4-seeded Mountaineers (33-20, 19-11) will play No. 9 TCU (31-19, 14-16). Then, if all goes well, WVU may get an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

Meanwhile, Wetherholt, 21, is declining all interview requests to better focus on what really matters. After all, there’s not much time in the day for anything other than practice, games, yoga, weightlifting, class and — an equally important item — lights out by 9 p.m.

At least, that was bedtime in high school, Thompson said.

“He was always thinking about getting in bed by 9 o’clock at night and really mindful of when he was going to sleep,” the coach said. “His teammates would mess with him and poke fun with him and joke with him. That was something that he took very, very seriously.”

Thompson introduced a yoga program to his players, but Wetherholt started one years earlier on his own. Mars’ starting shortstop as a freshman, sophomore and senior (minus the covid year), he encouraged teammates to spend extra time with him in the weight room.

Considering his work ethic and the results that ensued, it’s no wonder Wetherholt (5-foot-10, 190 pounds) was the Big 12 Player of the Year, NCAA batting champion and first-team All-American in 2023. He slashed .449/.517/.787 for an impressive OPS of 1.304, with 16 home runs and 24 doubles.

This season was interrupted by Wetherholt’s hamstring injury in February that cost him 25 games, but only slightly reduced his slash line to .375/.519/.708, with an OPS of 1.227. He was named Monday to the All-Big 12 first team.

WVU coach Randy Mazey said Wetherholt’s first game back April 5 at Kansas “tells the whole story” of what he means to the team.

“First at-bat after missing 25 games, he got a base hit up the middle,” Mazey said Monday. “I think, collectively, the whole team realized at that point, ‘OK, we got our guy back.’ They all responded to him being back in the lineup. I think everybody got a little bit better when that happened.”

WVU swept all three games of the series — scoring 31 runs — and Wetherholt was 5 for 13. But he stepped up his game in the last four Big 12 series, hitting .410 (16 for 39) with five home runs in 12 games. He homered twice — both two-run shots — in a 7-2 victory against TCU on Friday. Since Wetherholt’s return, WVU is 14-7 in conference games.

“Just like a big leaguer in spring training,” Mazey said. “That’s the purpose of spring training, to give them 50 at-bats before the season starts. That’s what JJ went through, his version of spring training. He came back. His legs weren’t under him. He was getting a feel for the strike zone again.

“It appears at this point, he’s swinging the bat way better now than he was at first. It takes a little while to get timing and rhythm back. He’s seeing the ball really well right now.”

Baseball America reported that Wetherholt could be “the best pure hitter in the draft.” MLB Pipeline ranks him No. 8 among top prospects.

But his skills aren’t limited to the batter’s box. Thompson said Wetherholt sports a pair of “insanely quick hands.”

“He would get to a ball that I wouldn’t see many people at any time in my career on any team get to.”

Thompson said he has watched games, silently hoping the ball would get hit to shortstop.

Wetherholt, a natural right-hander, throws with his right arm, but bats left — a skill he picked up at a young age and stayed with after his older brother suggested it.

Mazey met Wetherholt when the young man visited a WVU camp after his freshman season. He committed before his sophomore year and ignored advances from other schools. Poachers are everywhere in college athletics, but Wetherholt’s decorated career will include time spent at only one institution of higher learning.

“No matter what anybody else had,” Thompson said.

“We knew JJ was going to be a good player from the time we first saw him,” Mazey said. “We knew he would fit our recruiting philosophy just perfectly — recruit great athletes with great work ethics, and it will always work out.”

But Mazey had no idea of the specifics that followed.

“It’s impossible to predict what he’s done and how much better he’s gotten,” he said. “You never can anticipate a guy doing what he’s done.”

If Wetherholt is chosen in the first round, he’ll join Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Alex Manoah (2019) as the only WVU players to reach that threshold in the past 28 drafts. Meanwhile, Wetherholt and Will Bednar, brother of Pirates closer David Bednar, would give Mars two first-round selections in the past four years.

“Those are some really special kids,” Thompson said.

Jerry DiPaola is a TribLive reporter covering Pitt athletics since 2011. A Pittsburgh native, he joined the Trib in 1993, first as a copy editor and page designer in the sports department and later as the Pittsburgh Steelers reporter from 1994-2004. He can be reached at jdipaola@triblive.com.