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The Many Faces of John Wall

In appreciation of the masterful facial expressions of a Wizard

Getty Images/Ringer GIF

John Wall makes many faces. Most of them are great. A few of them are exceptional. Two of them are transcendent. And none of them are replicable. Or rather: People can replicate them, I suppose, at least technically. But it’d be similar to the way you would “replicate” throwing a football like Tom Brady, in that there would be a ball and it would be moving from one place to another, but that’s about where the similarities would end. Because it’s just impossible to generate the same oomph that John Wall has. It’d be impossible to corral that same pizzazz and complexity and nuance.

When he narrows his eyes, like after a missed call or a missed shot or a missed defensive assignment by a teammate, it’s a symphony.

When he furrows his brow, like after a really good basketball moment or a really bad basketball moment, it’s a perfect ballet.

When he snarls or sneers and fire shoots from his eyes and all of his indignation becomes unbound, it’s like a Rembrandt painting or a Meryl Streep monologue, because they are masters and so is he, and so are the faces he makes.

There’s something intimidating about John Wall’s face. That’s really the central tenet, where everything stems from. It very much looks like he’s always thinking, “Why are you talking to me right now?” It’s part of the reason he’s such a bulldozer of a basketball presence. (And also, I would guess, part of the reason anyone who doesn’t like him doesn’t like him, because nearly all of his actions would suggest that he is a perfectly delightful and enjoyable person.) (He and Russell Westbrook are uniquely interesting in this way.)

Wall actually made mention of his “not approachable” look last September when he was giving a speech while being inducted into the University of Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame. He said he got it from his mother, a sort of innate toughness she had to utilize while she was raising him and his sisters. What’s probably at least a little ironic is that he talked about that unapproachable look just moments after he’d broken down into tears while praising her. He never looked more approachable, more relatable, and more accessible than right then.

Here, then, are the types of faces John Wall makes:

  • John Wall’s great faces: His normal happy face; his normal sad face; his normal regular face; basically any normal face he makes, really.
  • John Wall’s exceptional faces: His “You don’t wanna do this” angry face (he makes this one when he’s angry about something, but angry in that very specific way where you smile just a tiny amount, like when he and Jae Crowder got into a shoving match); his frustrated face (like the one he made when he got thrown out of a game after bumping into a referee); his fired-up face (like this*); his sniper face (he uses this one after he’s just sniper shot a team); and his GTFOH face (the best example is from the first 10 seconds of this video a few years ago where, just as a quick way to assert his authority, he pretends like he’s going to hit a guy in the face with a basketball just to watch him flinch).
  • John Wall’s two transcendent faces: His ultra-sad crying face (the only two times he’s ever shown this one were [1] during a postgame interview when the interviewer asked him about the passing of a little girl he’d made friends with, and [2] when he was giving the aforementioned Hall of Fame speech and got to the part about his relationship with his mother growing up); his contempt face (which is like if you took his GTFOH face and turned it up a hundred-thousand percent; it’s the one he generally uses when he turns into Gang Sign John Wall, his most infamous variant).

*This photo is from after Game 6 of the Celtics-Wizards playoff series. Wall hit a 3 in the final seconds to win the game for the Wizards, forcing a Game 7. Immediately after he hit 3, he made his contempt face, and it was fantastic. After the Celtics missed their final shot and the Wizards had won, Wall did his fired-up face. Moving from one signature face to another signature face was a bigger testament to John Wall’s brilliance than the shot he’d just hit.

Washington Wizards v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Can I tell you a quick story?

Several months ago I was watching the Wizards play the Hawks. (It was the playoffs, is why I was watching this particular game. I don’t just sit around watching Wizards-Hawks regular-season games. I would guess the only people who sit around and watch regular-season Wizards-Hawks games are those related to one or more of the players on either the Wizards or the Hawks.) It was Game 2 of their first-round matchup, but the game was tense because already it was clear that John Wall and Dennis Schröder, point guard for the Hawks, were going to spend the entirety of their time trying to embarrass the other person.

During the third quarter, Wall stole a pass intended for Schröder and then turbo’d off with it toward the rim. Schröder, bless him, tried to keep up with Wall, but he never could make up the full step he was behind him, and so what ended up happening was Wall dunked on Schröder while wearing him like a coat.

It was a great play, truly. But plenty of NBA players have done similar things. What made it different was that after the play, John Wall turned and stared at Schröder with so much disdain, with so much dislike, with so much antipathy, with so much visceral disgust that, as I was watching the replay, my skin and my flesh melted off my bones and I died and all that was left sitting in my chair was my bare skeleton. I know that sounds like a not-true thing, but it’s true. I have existed since then as only a skeleton, and let me tell you something: It’s not so bad.

It’s messy whenever I forget and eat or drink something (the food and drink falls through my rib cage and down onto the floor, what with me not having a stomach anymore), but besides that it’s fine. I have a newfound appreciation for Ghost Rider, and also Halloween has moved up in my personal holiday rankings, on account of all of the pro-skeleton attitudes associated with Halloween. It’s fine. Life could be worse. It could’ve gone the opposite way. My bones could’ve all turned to dust and I could’ve just been a big bag of guts and stuff, like a Mexican version of Pearl from Blade.

This is the play, and below is the face, which was one of his tremendous faces, in case you hadn’t figured that out:

Notice how measured he is with his stare, how exacting he is with it. More than that: notice how lively it is.

More often than not, a player who’s just had a big play—like the dunk on Schröder or a game winner or whatever—will either go with a mega-reaction (like when Giannis Antetokounmpo does his Super Frown or when LeBron does his Super Roar) or an anti-reaction (like when Derrick Rose does his Dead Face or when Kawhi Leonard does literally anything, ever, at any point, at any time). Wall, though—and again, he is a master, so that’s why he can do this—somehow manages to do both things simultaneously.

At first blush, it looks to be a version of the Dead Face, but it’s too lively, too energetic, too spring-loaded with righteous loathsomeness for it to be that. It’s a remarkable trick, to be able to be so full of life and death all at once. I don’t understand how he does it, or why it works, I only know that it works. Same with all of his faces, which are perfect, and interesting, and perfectly interesting.