Anybody who counted Juan Diego Tello Palacios among the faint of heart because of his failure to show at this past summer's elite basketball showcases knows precisely nothing about the Colombian-born, 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior power forward. "Tey-joe," the Spanish pronunciation of his second middle name, which has become his stateside nickname (spelled Tejo), is particularly well acquainted with the subject of heart. And soul. And guts.
Tejo is all guts, as a matter of fact.
Palacios, who averaged 18 points and eight rebounds per game as a junior on a scorer-laden Our Savior New American (N.Y.) hoops team that played a national independent schedule, has performed brilliantly since moving to the United States before his sophomore year of high school. That despite living with a host family in Centereach — 2,000 miles from home and his only remaining family, his mother, Maria Cevera, a woman he recently went two years without seeing.
Tejo's father was killed when Palacios was an infant, crushed when a truck he was working under rolled off its jack. No, Juan Palacios doesn't have time to be faint of heart. He's too busy capturing those of college recruiters and breaking those of opponents.
"Where I come from, nothing comes easy," says Palacios, who is rated the nation's No. 27 overall hoop recruit in the Class of 2004 by SchoolSports.com. "You have to work for it. You can't feel sorry for yourself. It's really hard sometimes. You're far from home and you know what a sacrifice it is for you just being here. Then, if you're not doing as well in school as you want or you're not playing as well as you want or both, it's very difficult. But it helps you grow, too."
Tejo's game has certainly grown since coming to Our Savior two years ago (he played his freshman year at home in Medellin, Colombia), and after averaging 14 points and seven rebounds as a sophomore, he evolved into an elite recruit last season. Possessing 3-point consistency from NBA range, Palacios boasts small forward skills inside a power forward's build.
Versatility is arguably his most lethal asset at age 18. He runs the floor fluidly and with separation speed. He handles the ball well, sometimes spectacularly. He's savvy and patient on the blocks with his back to the basket.
"He's very clever with his faking," says Our Savior seventh-year head coach and pastor Ron Stelzer, 54, a former Concordia High (Ind.) guard. "He gets the defense to commit, and he either exploits the man they leave open or uses the advantage he's gained to create for himself. His work around the basket is very impressive."
Tejo is also a key reason why Our Savior entered this season a combined 55-22 since his arrival, including last year's 30-11 campaign. Not bad for a school founded in 1992 that didn't add a basketball program until 1997.
Palacios is also the product of a similarly quick rise to prominence.
Apparently, basketball discovered Palacios rather than the other way around when a scout in Colombia saw his 6-foot-1 mother towering over the rest of the passengers on a city bus. At age 12, and on the strength of that chance meeting, Palacios traded in considerable soccer ability to become a basketball novice. Within two years, he'd earned a spot on Colombia's under-18 national team. It didn't take long for a talent scout from Argentina to recommend that Palacios continue his development in the United States, which led to his exchange-student status at Our Savior.
Tejo, who six years after first taking up basketball is now one of the nation's most highly recruited hoop players, believes he owns a developmental advantage as an international player.
"Coming from another country, you have your own experiences and lessons as a player," explains Palacios, who has drawn the most aggressive recruiting interest from Louisville, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Florida State, Baylor and St. John's. "Then you get experience here. It's a nice combination. The NBA is here. We international players have to come here, but then we try to make a difference."
Tejo's development was altered this past offseason. Nagging patellar tendonitis in his right knee, lingering from last season, forced him to take the summer off from competitive play. Distraught as he was that he missed the elite summer circuit, he made good use of his time, adding more than 10 pounds of muscle in the weight room as well as paying a visit to his mom.
Now of sound body, he's itching to turn in a headline-grabbing senior season. That said, Palacios rates his mental wherewithal ahead of his broad physical skills.
"I'm really excited to play a full, healthy season because people have been asking where I've been all summer," says Palacios, who calls his mother every Sunday. "But I think my ability to relax in the biggest situations is what I do best. If I'm shooting well, I stay with it. If not, I do something else to contribute. And the key is, I figure that out quickly."
From where coach Stelzer sits, that mentality gave Palacios the focus of an upperclassman from Day 1. And that upside is amplified by the fact that he is now a genuine upperclassman.
"He's really working hard on getting comfortable with what the moment calls for," says Stelzer, who notes that Our Savior's student population of 450 includes pupils from 26 countries. "His decision-making about what moves to use when, when to push, when to lay back and not try to be too spectacular — all that is improving, which is obviously a different level of development."
That hard work isn't just something Palacios is prepared for. He thrives on it.
"When you look at the talent God has given me, you know he's given the same talents to others," says Palacios. "The one who's going to be successful is the one who works harder. That becomes natural and something you carry with you."